News

Social Media Trump Ban: Dangerous Precedent for Working People

By Geoff Mirelowitz, Argiris Malapanis, and Francisco Picado

Jan. 28, 2021—Following the Jan. 6 rightist mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media companies shut down former U.S. president Donald Trump’s accounts on their platforms. Trump had encouraged the assault on U.S. Congress at a Washington D.C. rally earlier that day in a culminating step to a two-month-long campaign to overturn the results of the November election.

On Jan. 11, Twitter also announced it had “removed more than 70,000 accounts that promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory in recent days, as the company widened its crackdown on content that could incite violence after barring President Trump from its service last week,” according to the New York Times.

These moves were hailed by liberals. Many on the left went further, arguing that shutting down these social media accounts was long overdue. Some urged even more sweeping measures along these lines to curb the ability of white supremacists and ultra-rightists to widely promote their views.

Banning Trump and his supporters from social media, however, is nothing short of outright censorship. It’s an attack on democratic rights that sets a dangerous precedent for the working class. And it does not shut up bigots or ultra- rightists. To the contrary, it adds new fodder to their propaganda and thus puts wind in their sails. It offers them the chance to parade as victims of restrictions on free speech when, in fact, the actions of the ultra-rightists are a deadly danger to all democratic rights.

The real peril posed by the far-right is not expressing opinions on social media but carrying out attacks such as the Jan. 6 mob assault on the U.S. Capitol. That attack had no chance of success. Future ultra-rightist actions will be far more dangerous. 

Bourgeois liberals, and liberal left hail censorship

“Tech giants were right to ban the president,” Michelle Goldberg, a self-described liberal and regular New York Times op-ed columnist, wrote in the daily’s Jan. 11 issue. At the same time, she called “scary” the power of these private companies to impose such sweeping measures.

“It took a riot in the U.S. Capitol that threatened our democracy and left five people dead for Facebook and Twitter to finally accept responsibility for their roles as America’s largest purveyors of disinformation and hate,” said an editorial in the Jan. 12 Mercury News, a liberal daily in California’s Bay Area.

Other politicians and pundits, self-described as “progressives,” were quicker and swifter. “Ban Trump from all social media sites,” demanded the Black Lives Matter national organization in its Twitter feed, immediately after the Jan. 6 events in Washington, D.C.

Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) went further. “We’re going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment, so you can’t just spew disinformation and misinformation,” she said during a Jan. 13 Instagram Live broadcast. AOC was “talking straight to the camera at her more than 8 million Instagram followers,” said the Jan. 14 issue of the Forbes magazine, reporting on the newscast.

Screenshot of YouTube video with Jan. 12 Instagram Live broadcast by U.S. House of Representatives member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, during which the congresswoman said, “We … have to figure out how to rein-in our media environment.”

Everyone who values democratic rights should ask, “Who is the ‘we’ that will make such decisions?” On what basis? Who will be next to be “reined in”? In the 1960s, revolutionary leader Malcolm X was often falsely accused of comments that could “incite violence,” as were other Black rights fighters who came after him.

What stance should working people and defenders of democratic rights take?

We should oppose the social media bans on Trump and his backers. That is not because these rightists cannot pose a political danger. They do, as their Jan. 6 actions proved, and they will aim to use these rights as license to kill. However, that danger should not and cannot be faced though censorship and the suppression of political opinions by the capitalist state or any big business that owns social media.

Let’s keep in mind that billions of human beings all over the world use these sites to communicate with one another. Working people and champions of civil liberties who use these sites every day can be next in line to be silenced.

All such censorship and restrictions on the expression of ideas will inevitably be used against working people. Against the oppressed. Against the exploited. Against those promoting social justice or progressive political change.

Facebook censorship in Greece

Recent events in Greece confirm this point. On Jan. 10, Facebook shut down a page in Greece titled “No University Police.” Its creators had posted a petition that opposed the institution and use by the Greek government of a new university police force on public college campuses. More than 1,000 university professors and other public college employees had signed the petition. The page promoting it had gained 5,000 followers within days. Earlier, Facebook had shut down the accounts of individual university professors who tried to post the same petition. According to Efimerida ton Syndakton (Editors’ Newspaper, efsyn.gr), one of the main dailies in Greece, Facebook imposed this censorship in collaboration with the Greek government and after rightists circulated death threats against some of the most prominent signers of the petition.

‘No police in universities’ reads title of Greek-language page Facebook banned Jan. 10, 2021.

There is a second reason for opposing such censorship. It miseducates young people, the working class, and anyone who wants to defeat racists and fascists. It misleads us to rely on our enemies to do the job only we can do.

Neither the government nor the wealthy owners of Facebook, Twitter or other “tech” giants can be relied upon to defeat these thugs. History teaches us that the magnates of capital and their lieutenants turn precisely to the same kind of rightist goons they may temporarily silence today, when they feel their minority rule is truly threatened by the majority, by working people. The labor movement’s past is filled with examples of capitalists using such thugs, cops, and at times the army or National Guard to suppress strikes and picket lines. The struggles for Black equality and immigrant rights have faced suppression by the same forces—mainly the repressive apparatus of the state, as well as extra-legal gangs like the Ku Kux Klan.

No mass fascist movement is on rise in U.S. today

The Jan. 6 rightist mob attack on the U.S. Congress posed a serious threat to democratic rights. However, no mass fascist movement is on the rise in the U.S. today. Many of those who joined or supported the riot may well become foot soldiers of such a movement in the future. If so, they will appear in far larger numbers, and with far greater discipline than the relatively small crowd that was dispersed quickly once civilian and military authorities decided to do so on Jan. 6.

When such a movement truly rises, history shows it will be financed and backed by wealthy capitalists.[1] Joseph Hansen, a long-time leader of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP), pointed to a vital fact about fascism in a 1973 article. “The social forces when fascism moves forward are of colossal weight,” Hansen said, “and require mobilizations of comparable weight to crush them.” 

Book by Daniel Guerin details big-busines support for rise of fascism in Europe in 1930s

Neither the relatively small actions by ultrarightists today, nor the far more deadly danger of a mass fascist movement, can be stopped by censorship.

The third reason this is true is because it simply doesn’t work. For one thing, the suppression of opinion often has the unintended effect of only interesting more people in the discussion being shut down.

Does anyone truly believe Donald Trump’s reactionary voice can be silenced by denying him a platform on Facebook, Twitter, or any combination of social networks? Even one or two billionaires can offer Trump the means to spread his outlandish falsehoods and perhaps even a television network or social media platform of his own to do so. The same will be true for any figure who may come forward to replace Trump as either a Bonapartist “man of destiny” claiming that “he alone” will cut through the gridlock in D.C. and overcome the power of the “deep state”, or a leader thrown up by a genuine fascist movement. 

In opposition to censorship by big-business or the government, the strategy to fight rightist, racist, and fascist attacks is that of counter-mobilization. Well organized, disciplined mass actions are needed in the streets to answer the rightist thugs, when the political moment and the relationship of forces are ripe for such mobilizations. We can then demonstrate that we are more determined to oppose any threat of rightist terror, defend working people and others from its mayhem, and effectively answer the rationalizations groups such the Proud Boys and their future offspring may offer for their reactionary course, than they are to stage any violent attack on life and liberty. 

Lessons from working-class history 

Once the precedent of limiting the expression of some ideas is set, it can and will be extended. James P. Cannon, a founder of the communist movement in the U.S. and later of the SWP, explained this clearly decades ago when New York City mayor Robert Wagner denied a permit for a 1961 public meeting to what Cannon referred to as “the preposterous American ‘Nazi’ outfit,” the tiny “American Nazi Party” led then by George Rockwell.

“It sets a dangerous precedent,” Cannon said. “The reasons he gave for denying the constitutional rights of the American ‘Nazi’ screwballs, and his incitement to violence against them, can be applied just as well and just as logically to us or any other minority. We will be greatly handicapped in fighting against such discriminations if we give direct or even indirect sanction to this treatment of others. People who demand free speech and constitutional rights for themselves but want to deny it for others do not get much public sympathy when their own rights are denied.” 

Cannon continued: “With truth on our side, we have the most to gain by freedom of discussion and the most to lose by its suppression. It is true that, as the class struggle develops, we will have to fight the fascists, and not only with words. But this will not be a fight to deprive the fascists of the right to speak and to meet, but a defensive fight to prevent them from interfering with the rights of the workers.” 

Farrell Dobbs was a central leader of the historic 1934 Minneapolis truck drivers’ strikes, later the massive over-the-road union organizing campaign that transformed the Teamsters into a powerful industrial union, and also a central leader of the communist movement for decades. In a discussion with young socialists in 1975, Dobbs returned to the 1961 example and explained further the political strategy that has guided revolutionary socialists for decades. It warrants citing at some length.

Teamsters Local 544 members in Minneapolis, Minnesota, confront assault by cops and strike-breakers during 1934 truck drivers’ strike.

“We don’t fight for free speech for Nazis,” Dobbs said. “We defend the right of free speech against the fascists and against the government, and we don’t want to hand them any weapons for suppressing our free speech.”

Free speech for Nazis doesn’t rise above laws of class struggle

“We don’t advocate free speech for Nazis the way the professional civil libertarians do,” Dobbs continued. “We don’t view it as a concept that rises above the laws of the class struggle.

“Our aim is to crush the fascists. That aim is dictated by their nature and the methods they use against our class. The civil libertarians may dream that this conflict will be resolved by polite exchanges of views. The struggle with fascism won’t be settled that way. Either the workers are going to crush the fascists, or the fascists will crush the workers.

“We stand in opposition to the government trying to put restrictions on the Nazis, because they turn any such restrictions against our class and its allies. We stood in opposition to the government of New York City in 1961 when it tried to prevent the American Nazi leader Rockwell from speaking in Union Square.

“If we had kept silent or supported the government’s action in that instance, we would have been helping the government set a precedent for use against the next four or five civil rights or peace actions. We don’t make speeches against free speech for anybody because of the same kind of considerations. But we are under no illusions that the fight with the fascist groups will be settled by speech.

“It’s a coldblooded tactical proposition. A lot of people are already in our party and I hope an infinite number are yet to come. As people mostly born and bred in the USA, they will come around us with all the thinking habits of American pragmatism and formal logic. They may think that since the SWP doesn’t call for the suppression of free speech in the case of fascists, therefore the SWP is interested in the fascists’ right to speak.

“No. Our concern is with the rights of our class and its allies. It’s in the nature of things that our rights and the rights of the labor movement and the Black movement will collide with the supposed rights of the fascists—because the fascists view their rights as a license to kill, a license to crush the workers’ movement.

“Secondly, when you talk about the fight against fascism, you are talking about combat. The object of the ruling class in trying to build a fascist movement is to prepare, alongside the institutions of parliamentary rule, extra- parliamentary forces to crush the working class and its allies and lay the basis for capitalism to impose a very brutal form of dictatorship. Between now and the time that showdown comes—and it’s going to come, that’s a law of history—the ruling class will resort to every possible means, including the most bloody violence to perpetuate its power and its privileges.

Bonapartism, military dictatorship, and fascism

“The ruling class always comes to the point where it seeks to pass from bourgeois democracy through interim stages like Bonapartism[2] or military dictatorship to fascism. The whole period between now and then is one of mobilizations and counter-mobilizations leading to the final showdown…

“The line-up in the preliminary stage is one of the ruling class attempting to mobilize initial fascist forces. The conscious revolutionary vanguard has the task of mobilizing the forces that are going to prevent the fascists from imposing their dictatorship in the crunch. That crunch occurs later when we’re at a higher, more intensive stage of struggle, when the capitalist crisis has become far deeper than today.

“If you start by attempting to hastily gather together a vanguard force and crush fascism in the egg, you are playing into the hands of the fascists. You are losing ground in the mobilization of the real class that can do away with fascism, and the fascists are gaining ground as a result.”

You have to know ‘what time it is’

Fortunately for those interested in an effective strategy to oppose rightists, racists, and fascists, the entire discussion Dobbs led is easily accessible (see endnote no. 3, at the end of this article). It deserves the most serious study, discussion, and debate. Dobbs explained that every decision we make about how to combat rightist thugs needs to be guided not only by a long-term strategy but also by tactics informed by an accurate judgement of the political situation of the day.

“Tactically, your actions must be calculated to aid the mobilization of the workers and their allies and obstruct the mobilization of the fascists. The fascists are trying to do the same thing. They are trying to develop a system of tactics that will facilitate the mobilization of fascist forces and block the mobilization of our forces,” Dobbs said. “This is no game for fools. This game is for all the marbles. The question is: is there going to be a victorious proletarian revolution or is there going to be fascism in power? The conscious forces on both sides know the game is for keeps.

“It is important to keep these things in mind in our discussions, to inculcate these lessons into our cadres and through our cadres into the mass movement. There’s nothing wrong with the instincts of most of these young ultra-lefts. The instinct is in line with the task, that is, the destruction of the fascist forces. The problem is that they just do not know what time it is.”[3]

In fact, the main enemy working people face today remains the capitalist government, and the privileged classes whose interests it represents and safeguards, not the small, still largely ineffectual, rightist groups.

The powerful explosion of last summer’s protests against cop brutality and racism makes this clear. It is the government—from the federal level down to every city and town, led by Democrats or Republicans—that is responsible for the plague of gunning down African Americans and others because of the color of their skin. We demand authorities charge, try, and jail every cop who engages in such brutality. And we should remember that the cops exist to serve that government and the capitalist class it represents and acts for. The government and its police forces are a far greater danger for working people and our allies than any rightist gang today.[4] 

New York cops attack demonstrators protesting police brutality May 28, 2020.
(Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

ENDNOTES

[1]  The book Fascism and Big Business by Daniel Guerin, written in 1938 during the rise of fascism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, is a valuable resource. Major excerpts of the book are available online at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/guerin/1938/10/fascism.htm

[2] For an explanation of Bonapartism see “Radicalism, Bonapartism, and the Aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Elections” published Jan. 13, 2021, on World-Outlook.com. https://wordpress.com/post/world-outlook.com/10

[3] The entire discussion can be found in the Education for Socialists Bulletin Counter-mobilization: A Strategy to Fight Racist and Fascist Attacks. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/education/counter/index.htm. The printed version can also be ordered from Pathfinder Press.

[4] James P. Cannon’s letter cited above, like the comments by Farrell Dobbs, can also be found in another collection of material available online, titled, The Fight Against Fascism in the USA — Forty Years of Struggle Described By Participants. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/education/antifascism/index.htm. The printed version can also be ordered from Pathfinder Press.
World-Outlook.com also recommends the Education for Socialist bulletin What Is American Fascism — Writings on Father Coughlin, Mayor Frank Hague and Senator Joseph McCarthy by James P. Cannon and Joseph Hansen. It is available online at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/education/WIAF.pdf. The printed version can also be ordered from Pathfinder Press.

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4 replies »

  1. Great article – the long Dobbs quote is excellent. However, one aspect of the discussion which confuses many people is only dealt with in passing here. There is an argument which says that the only kind of censorship is state censorship, and since Twitter, Facebook etc are private corporations (albeit huge ones) they therefore have the right to set up their conditions of service however they wish, and exclude anyone they wish to. Clearly you disagree with that, but I’d be interested in seeing your answer to that line of argument.

    Like

    • James thanks for your comment. As you note, the article clearly opposes censorship whether it comes from the state or from “tech” giants, which are private corporations. For the same reason that when millions of people mobilized in the United States during the civil rights movement demanding an end to segregation they were opposing racist discrimination not only by the government and its institutions but by large and small companies and other private entities. Under the profit system, most of economic and social life is governed by the magnates of capital, so when we try to defend democratic rights, for the reasons the article explains, the rules apply not only to public institutions but private ones as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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