Ultra-Leftist Anti-Censorship: A Brief Critique

Marvin Glass

What is to be done about racism and sexism? Fight them, but not, even in part, through state censorship, say some of the left. Why not?

First, racism. The working class, it is said, cannot trust the bourgeois state to silence racists. That state, through its structures and primary agents, is basically a power centre for monopoly capitalists; its executive, said Marx was “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.” And capitalism, if it didn’t actually invent racism, certainly profits from it, continually nourishes and maintains it, and supports its worst fascist excesses. Demands that the capitalist state censor racists will therefore backfire and lead to silencing progressive, and especially socialist, critiques of capitalism’s racist class rule.

In the current debate over what to do about the proliferation of pornography, some members of the anti-censorship side have put forward a feminist version of the preceding argument. They warn that by invoking the criminal justice system to censor porn, we are appealing to forces which are beyond our control and which, given the present political climate, may well get out of hand. How can feminists be entrusting the patriarchal state with the task of legally distinguishing permissible from impermissible images?

A similar, but more Marxist-looking argument about pornography and against censorship appeared in the British trotskyist journal, International Socialism (Summer, 1991). Sharon Smith, after quoting Marx and Engels on the class nature of the state, concludes that:

“the state contributes to the oppression of women through its role as the enforcer of the prevailing level of class exploitation. [Thus] any strengthening of the state is a strengthening of the means of repression of the working class... The point for socialists – indeed for all those interested in women’s liberation – is to weaken the hold of the state over worker’s individual lives, not to strengthen it. Liberal democratic values such as freedom of speech, scorned by [some radical feminists], strengthen the ability of workers to organize against their exploitation and oppression. Lenin put this clearly in State and Revolution when he wrote: “We are in favour of a democratic republic as the best form of state for the proletariat under capitalism.”

What all three anti-censorship arguments have in common, I suggest, is an ultra-leftist approach to the issue of state censorship. I’ll concentrate here on the trotskyist version.

First, what do the classics have to say about the issue? Smith’s Lenin quotation is taken from the latter’s endorsement of Marx’s critique of the idea of “a free people’s state”, a slogan which figured prominently in the Gotha Program or the German Social Democratic Party of the 1870s. There is no mention by either Marx or Lenin of free speech here, and neither would support an absolute defence of it or any other democratic value. But then liberal theorists (including John Stuart Mill), who contributed many progressive ideas about expression and its protection, themselves never supported unlimited expression. And the democratic republics referred to by Lenin, including the United States, all had and now have state censorship, including laws against libel, sedition, blackmail, false or misleading advertising, and obscenity.

Secondly, although Smith rightly worries about state control over workers, her rejection of censorship fits nicely into the neo-conservative agenda because it amounts to an endorsement of the complete privatization of films, books, magazines, etc., with sexual themes. If the state makes no laws here, then capitalist market forces will determine content and cost. And we already see the result – pornographer’s control over the lives of girls, boys, and women and the commodification of the eroticization of paedophilia, rape, assault, domination, and degradation.

No doubt, support for criminal code sanctions against pornography means that, for the foreseeable future, there will be some censorship of unobjectionable gay, lesbian, and heterosexual erotica. But why should we believe that this consequence makes things worse overall than the no-censorship market scenario which, like-it-or-not, follows from an ultra-leftist approach to the state? We are talking about a multi-billion dollar industry; how can and why should women be expected to fight it out in the marketplace against this crap?

Thirdly, the issue is never one of trusting any capitalist state or turning over to it carte blanche the means of repression of the working class. For Marxists today, politics includes promoting pro-feminist and anti-racist coalitions which confront the state and force it to enact some progressive laws against pornography and expressions of racism, laws whose overall effect is to improve the safety and status of members of oppressed groups. Recognizing the class, misogynist, and racist character of the modern state certainly commits one to predicting that victories here will be impossible without organization and struggle, but it doesn’t imply that they are all unreachable except in post-capitalist societies. The modern bourgeois state is clearly very strong, but it’s not all-powerful. History has proved that reform struggles in many areas of social life often succeed. To deny this is to disparage centuries of reforms and reformers.

A parallel with health care may be instructive. We in Canada have universal Medicare organized and administered by the Canadian capitalist state. Americans, thanks to Clinton’s vacillation and $100 million ad campaign of lies and distortions by the giant insurance corporations, do not. Thus, in the United States rich and poor alike are ‘free’ to subscribe or refrain from subscribing to the medical plan of their choice. Should progressive Americans therefore oppose all forms of public health care on the grounds that they increase state control over people’s lives?

Spark! #5, pgs. 3-4