Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Free Speech Is a Left-Wing Value

Most political factions only support free speech when out of power. Even then, it’s a mixed bag. Most Trumpists would probably bring back anti-flag burning laws in a heartbeat. Most leftists would probably be glad to create an Index of Prohibited Hate Books.

By Chip Gibbons, The Jacobin

Early American socialists like Eugene Debs fought for free speech rights as a bulwark against state tyranny and employer despotism. We should take up their radical struggle for civil liberties today.

n June 16, 1918, Eugene Debs stood up before an audience in Canton, Ohio. Debs, the famed tribune of socialism, had largely been absent from the speaking circuit for the previous year due to poor health. During his convalescence, many of Debs’s comrades in the Socialist Party had been jailed for their opposition to World War I. Speculation abounded about how he might navigate the new repressive atmosphere.

When Debs took the podium in Canton, he denounced the “Junkers of Wall Street,” praised the Bolshevik Revolution, extolled the strength of the Socialist movement, and expressed his devotion to “the cause of labor.” It was his remarks on World War I, however, that drew the most attention. The perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate told the picnicking audience that “[t]he master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” Faced with yet another ruling-class war, Debs countered, “If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.”


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