Editorial Notes

Free Speech and the Labor Movement

(August 1931)

Written: August 1931.
First Published: The Militant, Vol. IV No. 19, 15 August 1931, p. 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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1930 was a tough year for free speech under the stars and stripes, according to the eleventh annual report of the American Civil Liberties Union, published last week. The sharpening of the class struggle, with the state authorities everywhere on the offensive against the rights of the workers, is reflected in the total of 1,363 free speech prosecutions compiled by the Union in its report. Contrasted with 228 similar prosecutions in 1928 the showing for the past year is a revelation of the alarming encroachments which the “democracy” of capitalism has been making on the legal position of the workers’ movement.

Communists have borne the “brunt of the attack”, says the report, as was to be expected since they stand everywhere in the vanguard of the fight. But the labor movement, in all of its manifestations suffered wherever it came into conflict with the ruling class. Free speech is thus an issue of the movement as a whole. From all indications, the current year will show a still greater increase of the prosecutions and attacks and will magnify the importance of the issue to a corresponding degree. It deserves more attention and a more clearly defined attitude on the part of the proletarian vanguard than it has been showing up to now.

In our opinion, it is a great mistake to take the abrogation of free speech for granted as a proof that there is no justice under capitalism. We know that well enough, but the knowledge is small consolation. The labor movement and its Communist nucleus needs the maximum of free expression and should not surrender it lightly. It is one of the penalties the ruling class must pay for its parliamentary form of government that it promises democratic rights and imbues the masses with a belief in their existence and their right to them. The extent to which they are really granted is another question. It depends among other things, upon the strength and the militancy of the resistance to their curtailment. And for this resistance, the Communists alone – an insignificant minority – are not sufficient. The issue hangs upon the volume of support from the masses of the workers, and it also draws strength within limits from the democratic sentiments of sections of the petty bourgeoisie.

Viewed in this light, the Communists ought to make a real effort to put the issue of free speech on the agenda of the labor movement as a whole, not merely of its Communist wing. To do this effectively, they will have to put aside the infantile shrieks about “Fascism” and put the question as it really stands. The rulers of America say this is a free and democratic country with a constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. The Communists should answer: Very well, let us have a little of this freedom, for legal activity. They should go to the labor organizations everywhere with this appeal and organize them to fight for it. They should demand these legal rights not only for Communists, but for all labor organizations and parties, as Lenin demanded of the provisional government in Russia.

The Communists in America, as the Bolsheviks in Russia under Kerensky, should insist upon free and open discussion of all questions and point of view in order that the workers may judge fairly for themselves. They should stop their hooligan tactics of breaking up meetings and become the champions of free discussion.

Last updated on: 13.1.2013