Illiberal attitudes toward free speech and expression have been a feature among sections of the Left going as far back as Marx and Engels.
“Hate speech!” is a battle cry we’re all too familiar with by now, and “deplatforming”—the disinvitation of controversial speakers—has become common practice on progressive campuses. A reversal of the Voltairean pledge, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” such tactics, employed by left-wing activists in the name of “social justice,” damage free speech, our main truth-finding mechanism.
The motivation behind this counter-Enlightenment attack on Western liberal values may, in part, be a genuine concern for the (emotional) wellbeing of women and minorities, but the approach taken is intrinsically illiberal and authoritarian. Illiberalism and authoritarianism, by definition, obstruct and corrode free speech, open inquiry, and individual autonomy. Never and nowhere have people thrived under such conditions, regardless of whether those in control were on the left or the right.
None of this is new, at least not in essence. Left-wing illiberalism, in particular, may seem like a recent phenomenon, especially when it takes the form of social media outrage mobs, but its roots run much deeper than that. For example, the term “political correctness,” which is commonly associated with the PC craze that began in the 1990s and has peaked in recent years, first on university campuses, then in the culture at large, was, in fact, “first used in the innumerable and acrimonious discussions among Communist ideologues . . . to judge the degree of compatibility of one’s ideas or political analyses with the official party line in Moscow.” Then as now, political correctness, which is inherently antithetical to factual accuracy and necessarily entails restrictions on free speech, served to protect axiomatic visions and assumptions from inconvenient realities.
In the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse’s theory of “repressive tolerance”—toleration of “reactionary” speech—provided a moral justification for the hard left’s increasing political intolerance, which the post-Marxist thinker referred to, in Orwellian fashion, as “liberating tolerance,” meaning “‘the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements’ on the Right, and the aggressively partisan promotion of speech, groups, and progressive movements on the Left.”
Based on an unwavering belief in the righteousness of progressivism, this illiberal attitude can be traced back as far as the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published as early as 1848: “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Implicit in this dictum is the view that such ideas are repressive, regardless of whether or not they are true. “The meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to socialism,” according to a popular leftist slogan attributed to Marx.
It follows that the “revolutionary class” (Lenin) is justified in suppressing “bourgeois” ideas to raze ordinary working people’s “false consciousness” (Engels). If this sounds patronising, illiberal, and authoritarian, that’s because it is.
The left hasn’t “gone mad,” as is often said. In a sense, it has always been mad. Illiberalism, intolerance, and authoritarianism, presented in the guise of progressive “liberalism,” arguably have a long, constitutive tradition on the left. Marx himself was known for his imperious intolerance. In Marxism, Thomas Sowell quotes the German revolutionary and American statesman Karl Schurz (1829 – 1906), who “met Marx and formed an opinion of him that accords with the impressions of many others”:
I have never seen a man whose bearings were so provoking and intolerable. To no opinion, which differed from his, he accorded the honour of even a condescending consideration. Everyone who contradicted him he treated with abject contempt; every argument he did not like he answered either with biting scorn at the unfathomable ignorance that had prompted it, or with opprobrious aspersions upon the motives of him who had advanced it.
One of the reasons why the illiberal left has always sought to control what we can and cannot say—and, increasingly, what we ought to say and who should have the right to speak—may be that in leftist politics, rhetoric plays a predominant role. “Magic” words, phrases, and slogans, such as “diversity,” “social justice,” or “Long live the Socialist revolution!” absolve those who utter them from the responsibility of dealing with facts. This, at least, is the impression one gets from observing large segments of the left, past and present.
In other words, there appears to be a prevalent belief, deeply ingrained in the leftist worldview, that rhetoric holds sway over reality. It seems fair to say, at any rate, that truth established by evidence has little currency in large segments of the left. Incessant repetition of politically correct mantras creates ideological “truths.” In lieu of sound, evidence-based arguments, spells are cast on those who challenge these “truths,” and dissent is typically treated as heresy.
Politically correct newspeak is one manifestation of this pervasive belief in the reality-transforming power of virtuous rhetoric. It’s a fallacy to believe, however, that someone’s attitude towards a particular group of people can be changed by making them use a new, “inoffensive” label to refer to that group. On the contrary, if the group itself is seen as negative, the new label will also take on negative connotations. It doesn’t take a degree in sociolinguistics to see this (in fact, such a degree may even be a hindrance). Words are powerful, but they don’t have magical powers.
Come to think of it, a belief in the unlimited power of words may play a role in why progressive outrage mobs invariably react with hysteria to taboo words, regardless of context and intention, failing even to distinguish between primary and meta-linguistic usages. The stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian hilariously mocks this trigger-happy attitude.
It seems likely that left-wing intellectuals began focusing on language rather than socioeconomics as a result of communism’s evident failure to deliver utopia—to put it mildly. Postmodern crypto-Marxists such as Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, held that language was structured by hierarchical power. Implicit in this claim is the belief that power relations can be changed by language. This, in turn, necessitates that certain people (guess who) be given the power to regulate language and control the discourse to “dismantle oppression.” One reason this is untenable is that language, analogous to socioeconomics, establishes itself organically rather than by authority.
This is not to say that authoritarian control of language is impossible, though it usually takes a great deal of coercion. Nor is it useless. Totalitarians left and right, have always understood that those who control the language control the public discourse. One of the great truths of George Orwell’s 1984 was that language can be an instrument of power. This is why it’s unwise ever to cede linguistic territory to authoritarian radicals, even if they have “good intentions.” As Milton Friedman once put it, “The most harm of all is done when power is in the hands of people who are persuaded of the purity of their intentions.”
The compelled use of politically correct transgender pronouns, pushed for by a vanguard of radical activists and backed by a large number of “useful idiots,” to use an old leftist phrase, is an example of an attempted linguistic “land grab” by virtue-signalling authoritarian leftists. In Trigger Warning, Mick Hume writes that, due to the “entirely subjective character of the transgender identity,” transgender people are
“. . . the perfect human shields behind which the reverse-Voltaires can pursue their crusade against free speech. They can decide that they are women, in a triumph of personal will over physical reality. Then they insist that they have a moral monopoly over their truth, their story – and that everybody else must accept it unquestioningly.”
To question this narrative is to “invalidate the existence” of transgender people, which constitutes an act of transphobia. End of debate. It’s not only the evident lack of willingness to engage in a civil debate that makes this position illiberal, but also the underlying conflation of ideas and people. The same conflation frequently derails the public debate about Islam, most famously in the televised altercation between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck. The solution to this problem is perhaps best expressed in Maajid Nawaz’s quintessentially liberal maxim, “no idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity.”
The idea that “the personal is political” and vice versa—indeed, that everything is political—is reflective of a totalitarian mindset. It also implies that politics is everything, which may explain why so many people take politics so personally nowadays, demanding to be protected from challenging—“threatening”—ideas by safe spaces and trigger warnings.
There appears to be a psychological aspect to this as well. The British comedian John Cleese put it best when he said in an interview, “If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behaviour.” The current hysteria about “cultural appropriation” is just one example.
Modern “reverse-Voltaires” who seek to impose restrictions on free speech frequently cite Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance in support of their intolerance: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant . . . then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” What’s ironic is that those who make this argument and those who condemn any criticism of Islam, which is hardly a paragon of tolerance, as “Islamophobia” are often the same people.
Nor do they heed Popper’s caveat: “I do not imply . . . that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise.” Popper knew very well that freedom of speech, which also gives us the freedom to listen, allows us to sharpen our arguments against intolerant philosophies, which is precisely why those who champion such philosophies oppose free speech.
Heterodox literary and cultural studies scholar, writer, and musician based in Vienna. Twitter: @g_ambrosch