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The rise of Marx-based Social Democracy among the revolutionaries in Russia depended crucially on the growing conviction that a political revolution had to precede a social revolution.

Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context.

In Lars Lih’s monumental book, he tries to place Lenin and Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done in their concrete historical context. Lih argues that prior to World War 1, Lenin was a committed “Erfurtian”, that is, he subscribed to the programme and ideals of the German Social Democratic Party as formalized by Kautsky and others. For Lenin, Lih writes, “political freedom” comprised four elements: freedom of speech, association, assembly, and strikes. In today’s conjuncture, as “freedom of speech” has become a cultural battleground, I think it’s useful to ask in what way the context of “freedom of speech” (and intellectual freedom more broadly) has changed since the Europe of the late nineteenth century.

The “weaponization” of freedom of speech/freedom of expression as, for example, found in Peter MacKinnon’s recent book University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate & Dissent on Campus.(for which I have a review forthcoming in CJAL), tends to position “freedom of speech” as a liberal bastion against the intolerant hordes of right and left who seek to “censor” debate and the free flow of information in the marketplace of ideas. For Lenin - and for the German Social Democrats - freedom of speech meant quite literally freedom from government censorship. This is still the interpretation used by free speech maximalists - that, for example, the First Amendment protects against government censorship, but not against non-government actors - indeed, this argument was used as justification for the change to the ALA room booking interpretation of 2018 to explicitly allow hate groups into public library spaces. It was argued that as government agencies public libraries had to be clear in their non-contravention of the First Amendment.

So, the main framing of freedom of speech is as a protection against the power of the state, which is fair enough; but this framing is then simply widened to include non-state groups who seek to “silence” (really deplatform) speakers and stifle debate. What underpins the fear of limiting free expression in non-state contexts is, I believe, a residual fear of state oppression that is a holdover from a previous political conjuncture. The “political revolution” awaited by the German and Russian Social Democrats was a bourgeois (that is, a liberal) revolution; “freedom of speech” was part of the bourgeois political programme, seeking to liberate expression from the limits placed on it by government censorship. Those who cling to an outdated free-speech maximalism are still under the sway of a pre-revolutionary ideology (classical liberalism).

But we are beyond the bourgeois/liberal revolution. In Europe, in Canada, in the United States, the bourgeoisie overthrew the aristocracy and the nobility hundreds of years ago. The French and American Revolutions are the two most exemplary (or “world historical”) of bourgeois revolutions, but freedom of speech from government interference is enshrined in all the liberal democracies on the planet.

I have written elsewhere how the fact that bourgeois liberalism originated as the ideology of a particular identity - white, male, middle-class, property-owning - means that positions from outside this identity are simply incoherent to liberals (who therefore rely on a vague notion of ‘tolerance’ rather than a real understanding of difference). Bourgeois liberals today cannot understand that the classical liberalism of two hundred years ago is no longer adequate to a world in which the non-white, non-male, non-property-owning, and non-middle-class are fighting back. The resurgence of fascism and other right-wing ideologies, the unwillingness of marginalized populations to “know their place” all challenge the classical liberal orthodoxy, including the dominant framing of “freedom of speech”, though because they share many other values (especially a distrust of difference), liberals are often able to find common ground with the right-wing in many other areas. In a post-political-revolution world “freedom of speech”, indeed any pre-revolutionary liberal value, can no longer be uncritically maintained except by those who have a conscious or unconscious interest in maintaining the status quo: erasure of difference, protection of private property, exploitation and dehumanization of the subaltern.

In LIS, “intellectual freedom” is often contrasted with “social responsibility”, often with IF as a hegemonic norm and social responsibility as a recurring complement to it. Liberal pluralism sees social responsibility as simply another perspective, and the debates between the two positions as - eventually - reconcilable without any compromising of liberal values. But looked at from the perspective of the distinction between the political and social revolutions, we can understand the relation between IF and SR as a dialectical one: IF as the present and positive value of the bourgeois revolution, SR as the stirrings of and groping towards the social revolution to come. As in all dialectical relationships, there can be no “reconciliation” of the contradiction between these two positions, only the genesis of a third term, which we might usefully think of as intellectual freedom beyond the social revolution, an intellectual freedom which combines elements of IF and SR but is not beholden to the interests of private capital and the dominance of the white heteropatriarchal bourgeoisie.

What we need to think of now is a definition of freedom of speech/freedom of expression/intellectual freedom proper to a conjuncture looking forward to the next revolution, the social revolution, in which the enemy is not (or not merely) the state, but all the social forces of reaction, chauvinism, patriarchy, and white-supremacy that hide behind the state. Intellectual freedom has to give way to a politically sophisticated, committed “intellectual politics”. Freedom, in the period between the political revolution and the social revolution, can no longer mean simply political freedom, though it must subsume political freedom; it must be a social freedom appropriate to the social revolution. It cannot be framed within an outmoded ideology that serves only to protect bourgeois interests, but rather within a new ideology that serves the interests of marginalized, oppressed, exploited, and impoverished communities.

Liberal “intellectual freedom” is a value of those who would rather cling to the hope of gradual change, which amounts to little more than maintaining the status quo, than the social revolution. In 1911, Lenin addressed reformism in Russian social-democracy, and noted that:

the more unadulterated the rule of the bourgeoisie, and the greater the political liberty, the more extensive is the application of the “most up-to-date” bourgeois slogan: reform versus revolution, the partial patching up of the doomed regime with the object of dividing and weakening the working class, and of maintaining the rule of the bourgeoisie, versus the revolutionary overthrow of that rule.

We live in a time of unparalleled political liberty (generally speaking). It is all the more important, then, that we reject the idea of reformism and the kind of partial, class-based intellectual freedom that attends it, and look forward instead to a new universal intellectual freedom appropriate to a new society.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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