A Socialist Approach to Free Speech


Samuel Farber in Jacobin:

Rather than relying on the promise of a consequentialist heaven, it can be argued that a right is a good thing in itself, essential to the dignity and self-determination of persons, and necessary for democracy. Rights — including the right to free speech — might help produce the closest approximation to truth and a better society, but, much more important, they are a constituent element of a good society.

Like other conceptions of rights grounded on metaphysical, ahistoric notions like human nature or natural law, Garton Ash’s reliance on empathy and tolerance cannot found a robust right to free expression, safe from erosion by powerful economic or governmental actors.

We need an alternative approach to rights that does not hinge on abstractions. Rosa Luxemburg offers one:

Every right of suffrage, like any other political right, is not to be measured by some sort of abstract scheme of “justice,” or in terms of any other bourgeois-democratic phrases, but by the social and economic relationships for which it is designed.

Luxemburg understands rights as embodiments of concrete social and economic relationships. In liberal capitalist societies, unequal access to power constrains these rights. In a thoroughly democratic socialist society, these constraints would disappear.

Indeed, what Free Speech most lacks is Luxemburg’s concrete understanding of the relationship between rights and power. In what follows, I’ll detail three of the ten principles that organize the book to show how his liberal interpretation of the right to free speech fails to account for the impact of power structures on free speech.

More here.