Those of us who have been politically engaged over the past few decades will find little new in what Michelle Goldberg refers to in her Times op-ed as the left’s “free speech problem.” My introduction to it was in 1978 when the ACLU supported the American Nazi Party’s application to march in Skokie, Illinois.
Much of the left, most conspicuously, the alphabet soup of self-defined Marxist organizations, inveighed against the liberals who aligned with the ACLU. One of these “liberals” was Chomsky and while I don’t remember his being personally attacked for his stance, in a few years he would be. That occurred during the so-called Faurisson affair involving French academic Robert Faurisson accused of “falsification of history” by the French courts for having published a volume denying the existence of Nazi death camps.
Chomsky viewed this as a clear instance of suppression of speech, noting then, as he has routinely, that freedom of speech means nothing unless it applies to those whose views one finds abhorrent, as was clearly the case in this instance. This triggered considerable outrage from across the spectrum of the French left which mirrored the Marxist left here in denying that “Nazis had the right to speak.”
While there was no word for it at the time, this led to Chomsky being “cancelled” from French intellectual life. His formerly august reputation shattered, denunciations of Chomsky’s supposed Nazi sympathies (consistent, it was claimed with his harsh criticism of the policies of the Israeli state) deriving from the moderate to extreme left.
The similarities in the environments which led to Chomsky’s cancellation then during the Faurrison affair and now obscure certain differences relevant to the discussion. Among these was the role of the French Communist Party and other Marxist formations which were still viable, exerting considerable influence on elite discourse. They recognized that defense of free speech and other so called “bourgeois” rights constituted an implicit attack on those regimes they were ideologically and in some cases institutionally aligned with, namely, the Soviet Union and, to a lesser degree, China. Promotion of individual rights and liberties including free speech were a staple of cold war propaganda, massively financed, we now know, by Western intelligence services and even those far from being fellow travellers were taken aback by its cynicism and dishonesty.
That the protection of these regimes and the authoritarian ideology on which they were based was, for better or worse, a central concern of the French intellectuals attacking Chomsky during the Faurisson affair raises an obvious question: how should one explain the left’s rejection of Chomsky’s views now? There is, after all, no longer any Soviet Union to protect and the communist parties in their orbit have long ago collapsed. Furthermore, given that it has historically been directed against the left by the state, it is a bit baffling to observe leftists arguing for suppression and/or dilution of free speech rights. That this is a dominant left tendency has been apparent in the numerous challenges which Chomsky’s views and those supporting them have received in recent days including many on my own facebook wall.
The answer, in my opinion, has to do with certain subtly anti-democratic attitudes prevalent in sectors of the left. That the public should be marginalized from circles of real, objective power, is, of course, a foundational component of right wing political philosophy. That it has a left variant is less commonly understood, with Chomsky being one of the few to have registered its significance.
Specifically, this was the view associated with Lenin, as Chomsky observed in a 1986 essay where he noted “the great appeal of Leninist doctrine to the modern intelligentsia.” Chomsky continues, citing Bakunin’s critique of Marx, “This doctrine affords the ‘radical intellectuals’ the right to hold State power (becoming) the ‘State priests,’ . . . that rules it with an iron hand.” Chomsky also noted that nearly identical attitudes are congenial to statist liberals of the West, Robert McNamara’s managerial perspective overlapping closely with Lenin in its commitment to insulating a technocratic nomenklatura from popular demands and aspirations.
Coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political formations beholden to it has been an erosion of organized labor and the working class base of the left coalition. As Dustin Guastella and others have pointed out, what remains of the left is largely dominated by what Barbara and John Ehrenreich identified as the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), often downwardly mobile segments of it to be sure but whose high level of education and relatively privileged backgrounds have conferred on them a distinctive set of attitudes.
Among these is a sense of entitlement of their “right” if not to hold and exercise state power, at least to be socially and organizationally deferred to by those who lack the capacity or expertise as these are defined within the dominant culture. When they are challenged, their tendency is not to attempt to convince but to denigrate the legitimacy of the challenge, particularly if this derives from those unacculturated within the linguistic and social norms of the PMC, aka the deplorables.
This tendency is most conspicuous in the frequent dismissal “I don’t need to educate you” invoked by those promulgating the toxic conventional wisdom of race relations associated with the influential best seller White Fragility. Its relevance here inheres on its being based on the assumption that those granted access to decision making circles already should know the answers to all of the relevant questions. Those who don’t have tacitly admitted their guilt and are silenced through reprimands and humiliation.
The principle of free speech is directly antithetical to this deeply inculcated belief of the PMC and so it’s not surprising to find the negative reactions that we do in the current controversy. That said, it is rare for those challenging Chomsky to directly state their rejection of it. Free speech is, after all, a bedrock principle enshrined in the U.S. constitution and the legal system one which the PMC is ultimately invested in defending-at least nominally. What we therefore tend to see is a soft rejection generally prefaced by a pro forma endorsement of free speech inevitably followed by the qualification that certain groups (most notably Nazis but sometimes others) don’t deserve it.
Chomsky’s response to this is well known: those embracing it mirror exactly Stalin and Hitler who also agreed with free speech for those whose views they approve of. While the point is clear and obvious, it has had to be continuously reasserted for centuries: if you don’t believe in free speech for those holding views you find most detestable, you don’t believe in free speech at all.
The cancel culture mania of the last few years has revealed liberals’ and leftists’ supposed embrace of free speech to be highly elastic, if not altogether tenuous. The most minuscule expressions of non-conformity are met by left social media influencers unleashing their twitter followers with the goal of “ratioing” the unfortunate dissident into compliance. When this is not sufficient to silence them, it is often followed by tangible consequences, particularly when the campaign involves notification of the target’s employer, as has occurred to me on several occasions.
While it would be an exaggeration to compare the stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere we are now enduring with Mao’s China or the Soviet Union under Brezhnev or Stalin, it has been increasingly recognized that it is not one we should be comfortable with having created. Some, most notably Ben Burgis in this perceptive segment with Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, have argued that it is a major reason for our failure to create a mass constituency for our politics, something which should be obvious to anyone with open eyes. I’m inclined to agree and hope others will at least begin to engage in a discussion about it.