Spanish – Slovakia has passed a law declaring the Communist Party a “criminal organization” and prohibiting the public use of its symbols. In doing so, it joins a choir of nations that have already adopted similar provisions.
Will these measures be effective in eliminating the danger posed by a totalitarian regime? Will they perhaps generate an undesirable side effect of sympathy for the “outcasts”? And perhaps most importantly, are they compatible with the guiding principles of freedom of expression, the right of association, and the debate of ideas that characterize genuinely free societies? Are we not heading toward a “neo-authoritarianism” of the opposite kind?
The European resolutions
The Slovak law derives from the Historical Memory Act passed by the European Parliament on September 18, 2019.
This resolution states that “whereas the memories of Europe’s tragic past must be kept alive in order to honor the victims, condemn the perpetrators and lay the foundations for reconciliation based on truth and remembrance.” It goes on to stress that World War II was “a direct result of the infamous Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty of August 23, 1939, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols, which allowed two totalitarian regimes, who shared the goal of conquering the world, to divide Europe into two zones of influence.” And finally, it calls on all Member States to mark August 23 as the “European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.”
Accordingly, the Slovak Parliament considered that the party that governed the fate of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic between 1948 and 1990 and its current ramification, the Communist Party of Slovakia, would be considered a criminal organization. Therefore, it is forbidden to display its symbols, as well as to assign names of people representative of that ideology to streets, squares, or public spaces.
The neighboring Czech Republic has a similar regulation in place since 1993. Other European nations that have followed similar paths are the former Baltic Republics of Latvia and Lithuania, where the respective prohibitive legislation was enacted in 1991. Among those who did so more recently, Ukraine, in 2015.
Outside of Europe, perhaps the most conspicuous example is Indonesia, where repeated reports show people being arrested for reasons as simple as wearing T-shirts with drawings of the hammer and sickle. Sentences, unthinkable in Europe, can reach up to 15 years in prison in Indonesia, for which National Police Chief Badrodin Haiti warns: “Don’t play games. Seriously. Read the law.”
How do we justify it?
In his seminal book “Liberalism,” Ludwig von Mises wrote: “Only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and hardship of centuries long past.”
That barbarism and hardship are what award-winning journalist Flemming Rose alludes to when he says: “In historical terms, tolerance is a relatively recent invention. Until the 16th and 17th centuries, few people bothered to think about the value of tolerance. In fact, it was perceived as a virtue to be intolerant of dissenters. When it came to religious dissenters, it was considered a duty to persecute them as a threat to the political order and the spiritual health of society. Believers were obliged to eradicate heretics and blasphemers; otherwise, they, and their communities, risked becoming targets of God’s wrath.”
The process that led humanity to a more respectful and tolerant behavior was certainly long and tortuous. Its marches and counter-marches included contributions such as those of Voltaire, for whom tolerance is the necessary consequence of the realization of our essential fallibility, and that forgiving each other’s foolishness is the “first principle” of natural law.
Incidentally, here is the paradox of paradoxes. Voltaire’s “Treatise on Tolerance” of 1763 was immediately included by the Catholic Church in the Index of forbidden books.
A century after Voltaire, John Stuart Mill focused on the “utilitarian” aspects of tolerance: the refinement in precision and detail that emerges from any exchange of ideas and the satisfaction that comes from being able to make one’s own choices from a wide range of available ideas.
But of course, the question is not settled. First, because tolerance is not something that comes naturally to us humans: one need only observe any child’s temper tantrum at the dissatisfaction of a desire to realize that we are not innately prepared for frustration. And second, because the study of recent history places us in front of the triumph of totalitarian regimes that have crushed freedoms on a scale that dwarfs the most chilling executions of Protestants carried out by the very Catholic Mary I Tudor in 16th century London.
The paradox of tolerance
Karl Popper, in his 1945 work “The Open Society and its Enemies,” exposed what has been called “the paradox of tolerance”. The author states: “If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed… We claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We must demand that any movement that preaches intolerance be placed outside the law.”
However, to argue that this is a support for proscriptive legislation is a shortened reading of authentic Popperian thought, from which these other, more moderate quotes are often omitted from that resounding initial statement: “I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.”
Now, if we are going to sacrifice the freedoms of expression and association to defend a free society, then the boundary between “words” and “deeds” must be clarified. What are we going to understand by facts? And what treatment are we going to give to symbolic acts?
Are burning a photo of the queen or tearing the pages from a Koran, for example, acts of violence that enable a ban? Can a racist caricature or a xenophobic joke be denounced as producing psychological damage and lead to its suppression? Where do we draw the line between words and deeds?
Furthermore, as Pablo Magaña wrote in “The Paradox of the Paradox of Tolerance”: “It is not enough that we believe that the members of a group are intolerant, but it is necessary that they are indeed intolerant.”
And in the meantime, through bans, don’t our free societies run the risk of starting to plunge a slope that leads to a valley as totalitarian as the one we are trying to avoid?
Such have been, among others, the foundations of those Supreme Court rulings that in various countries have declared unconstitutional norms similar to the Slovak one. Moldova, Poland, the United States, and Taiwan have had to backtrack on their attempts to outlaw certain parties, with their courts holding the rights of expression and association to be inviolable.
Is banning effective?
The analysis of the practical dimension should be added to the fundamental debate.
Germany, one of the “pioneer” countries in outlawing communism in 1956, exempted the KPD (Communist Party of Germany or Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) from its reach by a special provision in the reunification treaties. However, there was already a communist party in Germany, the DKP (German Communist Party or Deutsche Kommunistische Partei). Why? Because it was a new party. The Communist Party could have been outlawed, but no restriction was legitimately applicable to a new organization. As a result, today, the KPD and the DKP coexist and cooperate. In short, instead of neither, there are now two.
In other cases, such as Iran, the communist party survives in hiding while simultaneously setting up “delegations” in Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. It is banned in the country, but it has international influence- the paradox of the prohibitions.
Why do people vote for communism?
In short, the core of the problem is not the existence of a totalitarian political platform but the fact that people vote for it.
Luis Ferrini argues that in a first approach, it could be theorized that people vote for authoritarianism because they have not lived under it, they are attracted by its idealistic fantasies or have been seduced by some charismatic guru.
However, there is another idea that the author finds more powerful, and that is that to the extent that assuming freedom also implies assuming responsibility, it is easier to choose alternatives that eliminate individual responsibility, even at the cost of giving up freedom in return.
Of course, the theoretical return to the safety of the child’s nest where needs are magically solved has as a counterpart resigning freedom. But this is not immediately perceived. Even less noticeable is the fact that no need will really be satisfied under totalitarianism, nor that life will become opaque, wretched, and sad.
According to Ferrini, just as our gradual acquisition of freedoms goes hand in hand with the growing assumption of responsibility, there are also partially responsible societies (which would correspond to traditional democratic regimes) and fully responsible societies (associated with libertarian proposals). But that path is “uphill.” And the authoritarian platforms, which propose an idyllic return to infantile dependence, are in that sense much more attractive.
If we add to that, by means of proscription, the irresistible “attraction to the forbidden,” the “boomerang” effect can be catastrophic.
If a historical example is needed to corroborate this, it is enough to think of Christianity. Condemned in the beginning to the shadows of the catacombs, it ended up being elevated by the emperor Theodosius in the year 380 to the only official religion of the Roman Empire. Moreover, the decree itself, known as the Edict of Thessaloniki “Cunctos populos” (“To all peoples”) undertook reverse persecution, saying: “We order those who follow this rule to have the name of Catholic Christians, while the rest of us judge them to be insane and madmen upon whom the infamy of heresy will weigh.”
In short, it is not about silencing others. On the contrary, it is about encouraging us to argue with others. Because it is dissent, not consensus, that is the hallmark of an open society.
Some will call this naivety. Others will call it a battle of ideas.