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Communism and Expression

Perhaps the most "damning" charge levelled against those of us who define as "communist" is the charge that every existing socialism has censored free thought.  State censorship, the war against intellectuals and artists, is used as an example of why communism is opposed to freedom.  For how can it claim to be liberate humanity when there is evidence that the failed socialisms of the past have censored free expression?  And we cannot simply pretend that this question is a false question, even if some ask it for dubious political reasons, because we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that numerous intellectuals and artists, some of whom were rather brilliant, were silenced under actually existing socialism.

The knee-jerk reaction is to point out the hypocrisy of this complaint, arguing that the centres of capitalism have engaged in their own methods of censorship.  As I argued in a much older post, it is clear that Americans are pretty good at censoring what they find politically and morally offensive without appearing that they're censoring: removing books from libraries, preventing books from being printed, and doing so in a way that can still appear to admit the "right" to produce controversial documents and not engage in overt state censorship.  You can write whatever you want in the marketplace of ideas, but we'll just pull your books from libraries, if they even see print, and argue that this is also democracy.

Even still, this does not answer the overall question.  Because it is still true that at the centres of capitalism, even if it is mainly formal, there is a level of intellectual and artistic freedom that seems oddly contradictory.  There are entire presses dedicated to radical literature that are not shut down by the state.  While it is true that distribution is always a problem, and these presses are always afraid of disintegrating due to their inability to keep functioning, they are not raided by the American equivalent of the Stasi on a daily basis.  And radical professors can sometimes enjoy tenure, regardless of what they say about the state.

The Chinese Revolution attempted to solve this question, despite what is claimed by all the idiotic and ahistorical propaganda produced by cold warriors (and those influenced by cold warriors) about that period.  The One Hundred Flowers campaign was a first attempt, but an aborted and failed attempt.  Aspects of the Cultural Revolution were another attempt: regardless of what is often said about this period, and I'm making no apologies for the chaos and confusion, there was the fact that thousands upon thousands of competing factions and groups had access to their own printing presses, sites of artistic production, and stages for their ideas––this was the context that produced Rent Collection Courtyard as well as multiple competing works of art and literature.  There is an irony of seeing the chaotically competing (and often violently competing) expression of this era as "censorship" when it was often quite the opposite.  And yet again, the chaotic freedoms of this period were shut down.  And even if some of us would argue that they were shut down by "capitalist roaders", this is still an issue.

I would argue that the freedom of expression supposedly intrinsic to capitalism––a freedom confined only at the level of speech––is permissible for three reasons: a) it serves as a prop for status quo legitimacy; b) it enables the radicals to out themselves for state surveillance; c) it is possible because capitalist social relations are normative.

The first reason is rather easy to understand: give radicals enough page space to expend their thoughts, and then permit certain presses to disseminate these thoughts, and you can argue that you're the height of freedom.  Obviously this understanding of freedom has nothing to do with people dying because they can't afford food or shelter (that's because of their own choices and laziness!), but with a very narrow understanding of freedom that is limited to thought and speech.  Still, it looks better in practice when compared to the track record of the late Soviet Union.  Allow the publication of enough anti-capitalist thought in a capitalist context and capitalist ideologues can always crow about the superiority of their tolerance.

The second reason is pretty obvious, and it is clear that the state does surveil everyone who has published anything just the least bit radical to make sure they aren't acting on what they've written.  This cuts to the heart of the liberal-capitalist contradiction that is apparent in Mill's On Liberty: under capitalism there should be a "marketplace of ideas" but actions should never be as free as words (write pamphlets about the corn dealer starving the poor, but don't assemble outside of his house to complain).  If people out themselves with words, it is easy to know who can be policed and thus prevented from action.

But the third reason is extremely salient.  Capitalist relations are normative and so the ruling class does not feel the same threat to its sanctity that, say, the Soviets pre-Khrushchev felt.  Socialism is a transitionary stage, the seizure of state power designed to suppress the return of capitalism, and so has often loaned itself to paranoid degeneration.  And this paranoia is not imaginary if you are under attack from the imperialist powers, if agents are active within your borders, and if capitalist ideology is still weighing heavily upon your society: in the case of the Soviet Union this led, under Stalin, to an extremely unhealthy and vicious siege mentality where every shadow was threatening.

(So the issue of freedom of expression is a salient question for communists, especially if we want to avoid the errors of the past.  This is a difficult problem: how do we allow for dissension, even if it might communicate to bourgeois ideology in a siege period, while also pushing for freedoms greater than what are permitted under capitalism.  For it is one thing for capitalists to proclaim freedom because of expression, and another to maintain this freedom while allowing people to starve to death––and this point needs to be made.)

Capitalism has emerged after a long nightmare of primitive accumulation where it now defines the terms of reality.  And since its reality is normative, it can permit dissension because it knows that it is not entirely threatened by rebellious publication––like a king who has absolute control of his court and permits the court jester to make fun of his rule.  Centuries ago, when capitalism was young, the capitalist ideologues were arguing against free speech, public libraries, sanitation, and anything they thought would threaten the sanctity of the market (just look up the Property Defense League).  Now capitalism is mature (if not senile), controls the production of reality, and can tolerate the antics of court jesters.

If a jester ever attempted to attack the court s/he was mocking, however, there would be no toleration.  Under the hallmark of capitalist ideology, as found in Mill's On Liberty, there can be no toleration for those who would act on their radical principles.  And yet the act of tolerating the jester, even if you throw hir in chains for going farther than performance, allows one to seem tolerant, enlightened.  But the king still remains the king, and the jester the jester.


  1. What of religious expression, however?
    Mao and his army, it seems, collaborated with the head Tibetan priests rather than the regular monks, not to mention they destroyed places of worship.
    From here:

    " As for Tibet, neither rent reduction nor agrarian reform can start for at least two or three years. While several hundred thousand Han people live in Sinkiang, there are hardly any in Tibet, where our army finds itself in a totally different minority nationality area. We depend solely on two basic policies to win over the masses and put ourselves in an invulnerable position. The first is strict budgeting coupled with production for the army's own needs, and thus the exertion of influence on the masses; this is the key link...

    "We must do our best and take proper steps to win over the Dalai and the majority of his top echelon and to isolate the handful of bad elements in order to achieve a gradual, bloodless transformation of the Tibetan economic and political system over a number of years;"

    "The Red Army and CPC were ruthless in Tibet, attacking religion and monasteries, destroying historical and cultural icons, and banning religious ceremonies. This was certainly no way to win friends and influence people in Tibet. Rather than patiently explain, the CPC attempted to brow-beat the Tibetan people into submission and into agreeing with the ideas of the CPC, and above all Mao. Thousands of monasteries and other sites were destroyed. As the counter-revolutionary insurgency grew - so too did the repression on the part of the CPC. This only served to inflame nationalist sentiments, and fuel support for the counter-revolution."

    Just thought to point that out.

  2. Fair enough, but I think this is grossly out of context. As much as I agree that the situation in Tibet was problematic, I also know that the during the cultural revolution it was the Tibetans themselves who were getting out of hand in the way they treated both the monks and priests and that Mao had to send in the army to restore order: his comments were spoken within that regard.

    As for the other quote, that is a distortion. Mobo Gao's "Battle for China's Past", as well as the work of the dissident China Study Group has written a lot on this issue. Parenti also has a good argument in this regard. Nor do I recognize the International Marxist Tendency as an historical authority.

  3. "Tibetans themselves who were getting out of hand in the way they treated both the monks and priests and that Mao had to send in the army to restore order: his comments were spoken within that regard."
    Wouldn't that be considered a good thing though since priests and monks were in the authoritarian role?
    As for Parenti, he demonized one group while lauding another rather than treating each fairly. Feudal Tibet was not an ideal era, of course, but was it necessary to do away with everything related to Buddhism? Why not overthrow the monks and allow followers to worship freely?

  4. While I tend to sympathize with the more radical aspects of the GPCR, I think that Mao's line (and it was always larger than Mao) was trying to navigate between the rightist and ultra-leftist positions: trying to fight capitalist restoration and push towards communism while also trying to prevent excess. And I agree that they erred too far on either side at different points.

    However, it seems you're taking a contradictory stance because on the one hand you're saying it would have been a good thing to allow the violence towards Buddhism to get out of hand, but on the other you say it wasn't necessary to do away with everything related to Buddhism - which was what Mao's political line [specifically it was Chou Enlai in charge of this] was precisely doing, and what his quote meant. So which position are you taking? The first says that Mao was not suppressive enough; the second says that he was too suppressive. Both are inaccurate. 

  5. Sorry, I meant that it would've been best to have the buddhist followers rise up against their leaders and turn their religion into more of a personal form of worship rather than a dogmatic organization. Instead, it was throwing the babies out with the bathwater, so to speak. Sorry for not being clear.

  6. Gotcha: and a good point. I do think the Tibet situation was bungled and has led to the settlerism evident in the post-Mao era. To be fair, though, the Chinese Communist Party at that period of time also had members who were Tibetan (along with members from various nationalities) who were pushing for the revolution to take on a large dimension in Tibet. And Buddhism, along with other religions, weren't attacked as much as Confucianism (which was seen as a prop for feudalism). Some of the messy policies levelled up on Tibet during the revolutionary era, though, definitely contributed to the current context.


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