On Communists

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

– Martin Niemoeller, 1946

Niemoeller’s confession has become a truism, the standard mantra of how we need to defend the rights of others. But in its pervasiveness, we sometimes forgot what the words actually say. In that spirit I’d like to look at the significance of the first word – ‘Communists’.

In 1930s Germany, Communists were not widely liked people. On the contrary, they were hated, feared and despised by those in power, as well as by many ordinary Germans in business, trade and service industries. Furthermore, unlike the unjustifiable racism directed towards the Jews, ordinary people’s dislike of the Communists was not without reason.

These weren’t your modern socialists who get called ‘Marxist’ for wanting to introduce a new 45% income tax or (if you’re reading this in the US) bring in public health care. These were full-on, genuine communists, committed to nationalising the means of production, ending private property and doing so by revolutionary means if necessary. Indeed, in 1919 and 1920 they had actually attempted to seize control of the government.

Nor was this just a hypothetical programme. Directly to the east of Germany, the Bolshevik Revolution had seized control of Russia, turning society upside down and ushering in a brutal, authoritarian state that was in the process of purging millions and killing millions of more by famine. The German Communist Party explictly supported Leninism and Stalinism. Later, communists would go on to seize power in China, Cuba, Vietnam and many other countries, while establishing an iron grip over puppet states in Eastern Europe, including in East Germany itself. It was understandable that people hated and feared the communists.

Yet Niemoeller explicitly tells us that we should speak out for the communists. I suspect that many of us, on hearing this saying – if we even listen to the words at all – focus on the last stanza, “And then they came for the Jews.” Of course we, modern-day western people, want to speak out for the Jews(1). And we absolutely should speak out for the Jews. But we should also speak out for the communists.

So who are today’s communists? They are those who are expressing views that the majority of polite society consider are repugnant, harmful or dangerous. Fundamentalist Muslims who want to establish a Caliphate. Some Evangelical Christians. UKIP or Brexit party supporters. Actual Communists (of the Socialist Workers Party persuasion, rather than the modern Labour party). Probably lots of others. It doesn’t matter whether or not we like these people, or approve of their views; we are called on to speak up for their freedoms. Speaking up for them does not imply liking, or support for, or endorsement of their views or goals. It does not mean an obligation to listen to them. It simply means defending them if their rights are infringed.

Too often our defence of others’ rights is conditional upon whether we like or approve of their actions and beliefs. Most of us can stretch to defending those who we think are simply foolish, but is has become increasingly common to hear the argument, on matters of free speech, freedom of religion or freedom of conscience, ‘These people’s beliefs are harmful, therefore overriding their rights is justified’; sometimes, even worse, “I don’t see why that should matter to someone, therefore they should comply with the majority.” This is becoming just as common – perhaps even more common – amongst those who say they place a high value on the rights of all, today’s social progressives (or ‘liberals’ in US parlance).

In an online discussion last month, one of the reasons someone gave for why it was acceptable to override a group of people’s basic rights to determine their own children’s education was that he thought the people in question would, if they gained power, wish to reintroduce Article 28 (a previous law banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools). I suspect he was probably correct, that many of them do want that, and I agree it would be bad if that happened. But we don’t get to override fundamental freedoms because of what we think someone might want. For that matter, even if they start directly trying to push for something we think is harmful or dangerous, in a free democratic society we still don’t get to override their fundamental freedoms unless they do so via violence or the incitement of violence and even then, only so far as they break the law, not indiscriminately. At a minimum, these freedoms must include freedom of speech, religion, conscience and association, the right to a fair trial and the right to not be arbitrarily arrested or arbitrarily dismissed from employment for exercising these freedoms.

If you agree with the people you’re speaking up for, you’re not speaking up for the communists. If you think the actions you’re defending are wholesome and beneficial, you’re not speaking up for the communists. If the mainstream press, politicians and thought leaders generally support those you’re speaking up for, you’re not speaking up for the communists. If big business is actively supporting these people, you’re not speaking up for the communists. If speaking up gets you dozens of shares on social media, the praise of your peers or public letters signed by hundreds of people in your support, you’re not speaking up for the communists. If speaking up can be put down in your performance review and promotion bid, you’re not speaking up for the communists. It might be right to speak up for people in many of these situations – we’re called on to speak up for everybody, not just the communists. But don’t kid yourself you’re speaking up for the communists.

First they came for the communists…

(1) In the 1930s, many supposedly decent people would have disliked all the people in Niemoller’s confessions, hence why they were targeted.