The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When ‘free speech’ becomes a political weapon

What we can learn from liberal anti-communists

When right-wing provocateurs come to campus, they’re not defending free speech — they’re attacking the legitimacy of the university. (Jocelyn Gecker/AP)

Here’s the dilemma college presidents face in the fall: Either uphold free speech on campus and risk violent counterprotests, or ban conservative provocateurs and confirm the “freedom of speech” crisis on campuses. Either way their institution’s legitimacy is undermined.

This impossible dilemma is no accident. It has been part of a strategy, deployed first by conservatives and perfected by the alt-right. The alt-right is a nebulous, still-developing political movement, but we know at least two things about it. One, its most prominent popularizers — Stephen K. Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer — have all articulated that they seek to destroy liberal cultural hegemony, which they associate with a bipartisan, globalizing, multicultural, corporate elite, and which, they think, is perpetrated in the United States by the mainstream media and on college campuses.

The second thing we know about the alt-right is that its provocateurs seek to bait liberal institutions by weaponizing the concept of free speech, which is an issue that divides the liberal left. It is true that higher education has brought much of this on itself through the extreme policing of speech and tolerance of student protesters who shut down speakers with whom they disagree. But that doesn’t diminish the extent to which the alt-right and conservatives are using “free speech” to attack and destroy colleges and universities, which have long promoted different variations of the internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism that marks the thinking of educated elites of both parties.

As college presidents try to figure out whether the First Amendment protects conservatives’ right to create political spectacle and instigate violence, it might be useful to recall another time when American liberals were forced to sidestep First Amendment absolutism to combat a political foe: the 1940s, when New Deal liberals purged U.S. communists from American political life.

That’s right, New Deal liberals and unionists — including President Harry S. Truman, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers — were staunch anticommunists who effectively shut down the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), forcing communists out of unions, civil rights organizations, jobs and universities.

They did so because communists were a disruptive force that was baiting and dividing the liberal left. Communists were also in a party directed by Moscow just as the Cold War was commencing. Their presence in liberal organizations made liberals vulnerable to Republican and conservative attacks. So those liberals interested in political success (and in preserving the New Deal) drove them out of politics.

What about the First Amendment, you may ask? Well, this was a point of contention that likewise divided the liberal-left community. Liberals had historically supported freedom of speech and assembly; they saw themselves as champions of the First Amendment. To deny communists freedom of speech and assembly — to run them out of politics on the basis of their ideas and political connections — seemed like the height of hypocrisy. Communists constantly pointed this out, as did those liberals who rejected the anticommunist agenda.

So anticommunist liberals made a series of arguments that justified denying communists these rights on account of their disingenuous intentions and totalitarian ideology. Most famously, liberal activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that communists hid behind the First Amendment to attack liberal democracy, using it as a shield as they sought to destroy the democratic system that upheld those rights.

Schlesinger understood there weren’t enough communists in the United States to actually foment revolution. But there were enough to divide progressive forces and thus create an opportunity for conservative Republicans to take power and repeal the New Deal, which he believed would in turn destabilize American capitalism and possibly tilt the balance of international power to the Soviets. Liberals would be chumps to let a principled commitment to “freedom of speech” undercut the pragmatic goal of political survival, which was the only way to ensure progress in civil rights and social welfare.

Philosopher Sidney Hook hinged his argument about speech on the distinction between the free flow of ideas, which the First Amendment protected, and actions, which it did not. He said liberals had no problem with communists’ ideas, which they were free to expound upon and disseminate. The problem lay in their organized actions, which involved “all sorts of stratagems, maneuvers, and illegal methods, evasions and subterfuges” developed by Lenin to subvert democracy.

Historians remain divided about the pros and cons of American communism, but most agree that the party often operated in secret and that it was directed and funded by Moscow. Communists denied this, of course, but the party’s activities were the basis of Hook’s contention that the CPUSA was a conspiracy, and thus not protected by the First Amendment — although its ideas were. Hook didn’t think that the state should ban the Communist Party (which would be unconstitutional and ineffective), but that private citizens and institutions should shun and expose communists, denying them the opportunity to further their political agenda.

Subsequent liberals (and most of my professors) condemned these anticommunist liberals for opening the door to McCarthyism and Cold War militarism. But given our current political moment and the threat posed by the actions of alt-right provocateurs, Schlesinger’s and Hook’s arguments may bear revisiting. Both worried that liberals’ commitment to the absoluteness of rights made them unable to confront an enemy that didn’t share that commitment. Both understood that the CPUSA, like the alt-right, was engaged in a struggle to destroy the cultural and political legitimacy of western democratic liberalism. And both understood that First Amendment absolutism was a luxury that only a stable, peaceable society could afford. I can’t help but think that even William F. Buckley would have agreed with this.

Historical analogies are always imperfect. Nonetheless, it is clear that western liberalism, as well as left-liberalism in the United States, is under attack from people who see the First Amendment as a political weapon and not a sacred principle. Quoting Voltaire is not going to preserve anyone’s liberties — least of all those populations most vulnerable to vicious racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic attacks.

It was one thing to defend the American Nazi Party’s right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1977, when the liberal establishment and mainstream media were still intact and American Nazi Party was a marginal fringe group. The group was offensive, but neither its actions nor its ideas posed a threat to the political or social order, which was stable. The situation is different today, with an erratic President Trump in the White House, elites in disarray and white nationalism on the rise. In this situation, and against this foe, it may be worth remembering that our constitutional rights are not unchanging abstract principles, but, as Hook and Schlesinger argued, always evaluated in terms of their consequences for society at any given historical moment.

At the same time, however, colleges and universities need to recognize that their liberal critics of, say, diversity policies or Title IX excesses are not political foes and should not be subject to censorship or censure. One reason the right has been able to so effectively exploit “free speech” is because campuses have become places where the free exchange of ideas has been curbed by peer pressure, self-policing and a self-righteous call-out culture, as described by Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Chait and Mark Lilla. Until university presidents offer real leadership in reconciling the liberal critique of “identity politics” with a new generation of diverse students, faculty and staff for whom such politics represent progress, they will be unable to protect their institutions from conservative attacks.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the group that marched in Skokie, Ill., in 1977. It was the American Nazi Party, not the Ku Klux Klan.