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A history of repression during World War I shows the importance of defending civil rights, but free speech always needs to be seen in its political context, argues Dominic Alexander

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Eric T. Chester, Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I (Monthly Review Press 2020), 504pp.

Freedom of speech has always been a matter of vital interest to working-class movements, as without it there is no possibility of organising and challenging employers or the apparatus of the ruling class. It has never been an abstract point of principle either; it has always been bound up with matters of power and economics.

The early struggles of the working class in Britain were hampered by the state’s impositions of such repressive measures as the Stamp Act, which increased the price of publications beyond the means of most to buy them. In the 1830s, the working-class press, like the Poor Man’s Guardian, was unstamped and therefore illegal. They circulated, nonetheless. In Britain, it has not even required wartime conditions for basic rights to be suspended in the face of serious upsurges in popular challenges to the political order.

Habeas Corpus, the law protecting against arbitrary imprisonment by the state, was suspended in the 1790s over fears of, generally peaceful, radical and revolutionary activity in the wake of the French Revolution and its republican Jacobin government. During this whole period dissent was ruthlessly crushed on the grounds that those who demanded reform were in fact Jacobins in league with the enemy. Habeas Corpus was suspended again in 1817, a scant two years after the end of the wars with France, in response to an upsurge in campaigns for political reform.

The issue of free speech is too often abstracted from the actual political and economic conditions in which it is always embedded. One of the virtues of Eric Chester’s account of the suppression of anti-war activism during World War I, both in Britain and the United States, is that it is concerned with such context. The account shows how much the issue revolved around ruling-class attempts to attack working-class and trade-union organisation and campaigning.

The evidence is very clear that the state in both Britain and the US used the First World War to pursue a repressive agenda that had originated beforehand and for other reasons. In Britain, the Official Secrets Act of 1911 was framed in such a way that the ‘burden of proof would … shift from the presumption of innocence to the defendant’s need to demonstrate his innocent intentions’ (p.16). The provisions were drawn widely enough to ensnare anyone leaking material which could simply embarrass the government. This paved the way for even more draconian measures under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) of 1914, and the notorious system of ‘D’ notices, which corralled the press into a subservient relationship with the state (p.39). The general habit of deferring to the state and its intelligence apparatus on what the public should be allowed to know has remained ever since.

Repression and self-censorship

The vague wording of some of the powers in DORA made even Conservatives worry that it:

‘permitted the government to move beyond the suppression of those opposed to the war to a censorship that curtailed mainstream newspapers, even those that avidly supported the war and yet were critical of the official war policy’ (p.19).

The most important aspect of this was not so much to repress shades of establishment opinion as to have a chilling effect on the willingness of critics of the war to advance their views robustly. Thus even the left-Labour figure, Fenner Brockway, then editor of the Labour Leader, ‘met with Special Branch and “offered to delete anything to which the authorities took exception”’ (p.36). In general, the liberal and Labour elements in the anti-war opposition showed a persistent inability or unwillingness to stand up against pressure from the state.

The harshest repression nonetheless fell upon the most radical, such that the Scottish revolutionary socialist, John Mclean, ‘was repeatedly jailed for condemning the war as an imperialist adventure’ (p.29). The real point was not opinion as such, but organised working-class opposition: ‘Those who organised strikes in the munitions and armaments industries risked jail and internal deportation.’ The military had the right to search dissidents’ houses, and even expel them from the area, such that ‘eight strike leaders were deported from Scotland for a year’ (p.21). Glasgow was effectively under martial law between 1916 and 1919 (p.24). All of this is without even considering the role of a special clause of the 1915 version of DORA in the savage suppression of the Dublin Rising in 1916 (p.20).

Despite the legal and political landscape in the US being very different from Britain, the same essential patterns emerged there, with American legislation in the Espionage Act, followed by the Sedition Act, being even consciously derived from British example. The bulk of Chester’s book is concerned with the US anti-war opposition, the repressive activities of the state and government, as well as the legal opinions on free speech in the American constitution which emerged in the aftermath. As in Britain, there was a considerable drive to use military courts to try civilians, but while these never gained the scope that was originally intended, the regular court system proved to be quite efficacious in imprisoning militant trade unionists, and determined anti-war activists, like the leading figure from the left-wing of the Socialist Party, many-time Presidential candidate, Eugene Debs.

Liberal-reformist compromise

Liberal and left defence of free speech under war-time conditions comes in for considerable criticism from Chester for its lack of more principled opposition to government pressure, showing little more determination than their equivalent figures in Britain. The National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) led by Roger Baldwin did object to the draconian persecution of activists from the International Workers of the World (IWW). These were, for example, being subjected to summary detentions for up to 58 days, in gross violation of constitutional rights (p.286). Moreover, soldiers were used to smash picket lines, even despite the union’s strict non-violent policy at that time. The government even detained IWW activists on the grounds that they ‘might organize strikes in other industries at some undefined time in the future’ (p.296).

Nonetheless, once it was targeted by the state with measures that were ‘in direct violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment’, the NCLB retreated into co-operation (p.103). The extent of its collapse is made clear where Chester argues that ‘Baldwin was helping the federal government to suppress the anti-war opposition. This was in direction contradiction to the bureau’s primary purpose, defending the rights of dissidents’ (p.115). Since Baldwin himself spent time in prison for refusing military service, this was not simply a matter of sheer intimidation by state threats, but a problem of political attitude and perspective.

The primary target of the state was clearly the militancy of the syndicalist IWW, whose industrial strength had been growing tremendously in the years before the war, and had serious potential as a radical force of workers’ power. For the government, ‘destroying the IWW as a viable union’ clearly had importance far beyond the supposed needs of the war effort. The state campaign involved various underhand tactics, beyond just censorship, intended to divide IWW prisoners campaigning for release, for example (p.130). Allied to the agenda was the targeting of the left wing of the Socialist Party, which also had political potential to challenge the system, particularly in the person of its most high profile leader, Eugene Debs.

In this instance also it was not just a matter of restrictions on free speech, as there was a disinformation campaign to convince the public that Debs had abandoned anti-war opposition, when quite the reverse was the case (p.161). Yet, the few left papers that reported Debs’ statement re-asserting his anti-war position were ‘banned from the mails’. Moreover, the government’s campaign to smoother anti-war opinion was immeasurably aided by the fact that the ‘segment of the Socialist Party press that aligned itself with the moderate wing of the national office refused to reprint Debs’ statement, fearing the legal repercussions’ (p.165).

To an extent, it might seem overly harsh to criticise trepidation about standing up to these levels of repression, given the widespread arrest of local SP activists and leaders. Three Chicago activists, for example, imprisoned for anti-war campaigning, were subjected to treatment that was unambiguously torture even if it involved practices that were ‘frequently used in federal penitentiaries, as well as state and county prisons, during this period’ (p.167). Nonetheless, while objecting to the government’s heavy handedness, the ‘leadership of the Socialist Party were clearly edging to … a conditional support for the war’, influenced by President Wilson’s apparently liberal war aims, the ‘Fourteen Points’ (p.156).

There is, then, more going on than simply a failure to defend as sacrosanct the principle of free speech. Rather, there was a widespread collapse of willingness among liberals and parts of the left to oppose the state when it comes to imperialism and war. The result was that anti-war figures like Debs could be politically isolated and targeted by the state. Rather than bow down, Debs gave a speech at a rally that, in Chester’s view, he knew would lead to his arrest, even though he carefully sidestepped the key issue of conscription. He was then subjected to a trial with a carefully selected jury. They were almost all older people, from rural or small town areas, and with a high average possession of assets:

‘Debs understood that the trial was not a genuine legal proceeding, but rather a political show trial, providing a spurious façade to cover the government’s decision to suppress dissent. Although he refused to present a defence to the prosecution’s case … he did address the jury before their deliberations. Debs insisted that there was “not a word in that speech to warrant the charges set out in the indictment.” His speech was “justified” under “the laws of the land,” that is, the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Debs believed that “the right of free speech” held “in war as well as in peace.” Judge Westenhaver derided this opinion as the simplistic claim of a novice who knew nothing of the law and yet judicial decisions in recent years have generally upheld Deb’s position’ (p.177).

Constitutionalism or class struggle

This confrontation between the legal system and a leader of anti-imperialist politics was clearly about more than abstract constitutional rights, but how power works in the system given particular political circumstances. Constitutions, written or unwritten, are only as good as the balance of political and social forces which determine how they operate in practice. During some periods, the ruling class will wish to elide or even abrogate rights that in normal times seem to be immutable. What determines whether such an attack succeeds depends rather less on legal opinion than on the capacity of social forces to mobilise against the attempt. Debs and the IWW in the case of the First World War found themselves without wider support in the struggle against the war, just as did figures like John Maclean in Britain, and so were defeated.

Chester’s account of these events brings out this aspect of the issue, even though the thematic focus of the book tends more towards the implications for constitutional theory, particularly in its later parts. However, in the sections on the campaigns to free Debs and IWW militants imprisoned with severe, long sentences, he makes a strong argument about the nature of the response needed from the labour movement in these circumstances. There is a ‘gap between those who believe that victories are won in the street and those who believe that gains are won by persuading those in power by quietly lobbying them.’ Too often, right-wing elements in labour movements insist upon the latter strategy. In this case, Samuel Gompers of the craft-industry orientated American Federation of Labour was ‘eager to protect their access to Washington decision-makers’ and thus ‘actively opposed every effort to build public pressure on the government to release Debs’ (pp.182-3).

Debs was relatively fortunate to be released in December 1921, although his health had been irreparably damaged by this point. Less well-known figures languished in prison for many years longer. Another case with which Gompers was involved concerned a left-wing socialist and trade-union activist, Tom Mooney, who was falsely convicted of a bombing based on perjured evidence. Gompers was only forced into action by the pressure of union activists organising mass protests on Mooney’s behalf (pp.202-3).

Gompers, however, consciously acted against this and other campaigns for IWW prisoners, valuing ‘his access to the president’ over securing amnesties for those imprisoned during the war. Mooney did have his death sentence commuted, but was not pardoned and released until 1939. Gompers’ insistence on pursuing a conciliatory, lobbying strategy towards the establishment led directly to serious defeats for the movement and irreparable harm to activists.

The repressive wartime regime did not subside easily. Unsurprisingly ‘the authorities at both the state and federal levels were prepared to utilize the enormous powers that the government had accrued during the war to maintain their repression of left-wing radicals’ (p.375). Chester is therefore quite correct to critique the liberal positions developed after the war, which largely accepted the notion that national security and free speech have to be held in balance as competing priorities.

Such reasoning happens on an abstract plane where power can be trusted to act in a neutral and objective fashion, but this is demonstrably not the case: ‘All too often, judges accepted the argument that basic rights had to be sacrificed to national security in a time of war’ (p.402). The system, left to itself, will almost always decide against the labour movement. This is why mass protest action that can put significant pressure on the authorities is the necessary strategy, not polite lobbying.

Free speech and strategy

Despite the discussion of Gompers and strategy, Chester goes on to take the logic of the argument in a different direction. It is certainly true that ‘the defence of civil liberties must be an urgent priority for the left’ (p.402), as the labour movement will always be the first to suffer under the repressive powers of the state. Yet, civil liberties and free speech exist not as abstract principles, but within the context of class struggle, and through ‘victories won in the street’. Chester, however, argues that free speech must be defended as an absolute principle, decrying any ‘call to suppress the views of those on the radical right’, repeatedly arguing against ‘no platform’ policies (p.403).

Certainly, the left should oppose repressive state laws, but mobilising against racists and fascists when they attempt to use public space to propagate their agenda is essential. It is a necessary part of any defence of working-class interests. Political platforms for racist speech lead directly to violence, and therefore the left should never be in a position of allowing, let alone defending, such public speech. No platform for fascists is not the same as state repressive legislation, but is an essential part of mobilising against one of the most dangerous threats to the labour movement. However, it must not be extended beyond strict limits, and sensible political context, to anyone outside the realm of the organised far right.

Chester appears to conflate entirely ‘no platform for racists’ with an appeal from the left for repressive state measures. The left should never call for such legislation, which would inevitably be used disproportionately against anti-racists and the left. The no-platform strategy should be wholly distinct from this, being a mass response to a real threat to people’s lives. Free speech is never neutral, and cannot be seen in terms of abstract principle. Its relationship to the class struggle needs to be understood in terms of the structures of power of a racist capitalist order. The importance of this kind of context seems demonstrated by Chester’s own history of the experience of World War I.

Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent During World War I is a very valuable history of an important period in the labour and socialist movements in the United States. This was a time when a rising tide of militant working-class struggle was ruthlessly suppressed by a government using new powers acquired for a war that few Americans saw as being in their country’s interest. Chester shows with insight and erudition the dangers when socialists fail to oppose imperialism, as the political weapons the ruling class acquire to fight war abroad will inevitably be turned against the working class.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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