Recently a teen named Madeline wrote to the Communist Party USA to ask a smart question. Her history teacher said there are no individual rights under communism. She asked for examples, and said her teacher replied, for instance, that we wouldn’t have freedom of speech. We wouldn’t be able to voice an opinion that contradicted the majority.
This prompted Madeline to ask CPUSA, “If we had a Communist President and a Communist country with communist laws, would that mean people who are conservative in any way could not not [sic] be able to say or do anything that was politically incorrect?”
Party member Scott Hiley fielded her question. He seems like a pleasant fellow, well suited to answer inquiries from young people. “The short answer is that it depends on what kind of things, and where,” he explained. “I doubt a government based on our vision of Bill of Rights socialism will be handing out fines to people who use the term ‘snowflake’, but I also don’t think it will issue permits for Nazi rallies, use publicly owned media to promote racist conspiracy theories, or let trolls make rape threats over social media.”
Hiley’s short answer is possibly true, but it assumes some ideas that turn out to be terrifying.
It is common for communist countries to have something like our Bill of Rights. North Korea is one of them. Article 67 of the North Korean Constitution says, “Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association. The State shall guarantee conditions for the free activity of democratic political parties and social organizations.”
Yet North Korea is one of the least free places in the world. Reporters Without Borders maintains a Press Freedom Index. It ranks countries based on the degree to which reporters may practice journalism without interference from the government. North Korea is at the bottom of the index, the worst country on earth.
The U.S. State Department has interviewed defectors from North Korea. They speak of prison camps where dissidents are “subject to brutal treatment, torture, sexual violence, and forced abortions, and many succumb to starvation and disease.”
The problem is that socialism and communism don’t have a framework for individual rights. Their goal is the good of the collective, as defined by the top echelon of government elites. Article 63 of the North Korean Constitution says, “In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the rights and duties of citizens are based on the collectivist principle, ‘One for all and all for one.’” If your speech threatens the social order as the elites or majority understand it, you could be jailed, tortured, and killed. In North Korea, being politically correct is a matter of life and death.
The constitution of the Republic of Cuba makes it plainer. “Citizens have freedom of speech and of the press in keeping with the objectives of socialist society. Material conditions for the exercise of that right are provided by the fact that the press, radio, television, cinema, and other mass media are state or social property and can never be private property. This assures their use at exclusive service of the working people and in the interests of society.”
The communist government of Cuba has also jailed and killed many people it deemed a threat to “the interests of society,” including artists, musicians, and writers. At one time it was actively persecuting homosexuals in the “interest of society.”
These problems are not particular to North Korea or Cuba. If we make the same choices here in the United States, if we decide that collective good is more important than individual rights, then we will end up committing the same injustices. There really is no collective good, except in an abstract and hypothetical sense. (If you investigate socialism, as you should, you will notice that a lot of specifics are missing.)
There are things that are good for all people, things that everyone (emphasis on the “one”) wants and needs, but that’s different. The collective good is a kind of fantasy about how the world should be. In practice, every government that put collective good ahead of individual rights turned into a dictatorship. It can’t be otherwise. Individual rights prevent the politically powerful from making too many important decisions on behalf of too many people.
Take Hiley, who mocks the “the ultra-conservative Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.” I would guess that his “vision of Bill of Rights socialism” would not allow them to voice their opinions. But earlier this year FIRE sued Joliet Junior College in Chicago on behalf of a student who was detained by JJC police for handing out flyers that read “Shut Down Capitalism.”
That doesn’t sound “ultra-conservative” to me. It turns out that FIRE has defended a wide range of viewpoints over the years. Why Hiley characterizes them as he does, we’ll just have to wonder. The point is that I’m relieved Hiley does not get to decide who has a right to say what. He might well be relieved that I don’t, either.
Honestly, so am I. No one should have that kind of power. Thanks to the United States’ strong framework for individual rights, no one does. As much as we value democracy in the United States, it does not supersede the Bill of Rights. If everyone else in the country—the biggest majority you could imagine—wanted to vote away your First Amendment rights, they would not be able to do it.
Hiley describes this as the idea that “our freedom really depend[s] on keeping America safe for racism and misogyny.” But really our freedom depends on keeping America safe for expression. People like Hiley have this said many times about those of us who care about freedom, that because we defend the expression of racism and misogyny, we are therefore in favor of racism and misogyny.
That’s not correct. Racism and misogyny are repulsive. But what we would have to do to prevent their expression legally would be dangerous to everyone. “There’s a lot of gray area” on the issue, he admits. It’s likely that in the gray area, you and me and Hiley wouldn’t agree on what counts as racism or misogyny or “hate speech” or “political incorrectness.” That’s fine, if we can discuss it freely. But if someone is going to go to jail depending on how that discussion turns out, then we have a frightening problem.
Then there’s his example of the Nazi rally. That’s not in the gray area. Nobody but a handful of goons wants to see a Nazi rally. The downside of our willingness to protect free expression is that we may have to put up with one on occasion. Every system has downsides. You should ask a committed communist about the downsides of communism. He is not being honest with you if he says that there are none.
Because we’ve worked out how individual rights guarantee peaceful demonstrations, even by Nazi doofuses, people rallying for justice and good causes are safe to do so. We can answer poor ideas with good ideas.
That is the right way to go about it. It may sound like a paradox, but history has proven that striving for collective good results in collective harm. But striving for freedom results in something akin to collective good—a peaceful way for each of us to live in a world of disagreement.