Free Speech: Plato and The Communist Manifesto


Free speech, the freedom to express ones opinion, is currently highly in vogue. Its most liberal form is currently found in the western world: a place where censorship is quite limited compared to other regions of Earth and in which a wide variety of opinions are expressed. There is however a trade-off between variety and consistency in private and public life. Plato´s Republic  and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party[1] both confronted the challenge of determining which thoughts that ought to dominate society. Both the Republic and Manifesto applauds certain opinions while they decry other, but to what extent do they differ and what is their reasoning behind their decisions?

            Finding an answer to this question begins with me clarifying what he means by free speech in relation to these two works, and how I intend to measure how supportive they are of it will be presented below. It’s also important to delve into the works themselves and the historical context in which they were written, looking at the history is necessary in order to alleviate the reflex of projecting ones present notions into the past and thus caricaturing it. This question will be answered and discussed through the body of this paper. Both works will be measured against a continuum with absolute/unbridled free speech on one side and total censorship/restriction on the other.  

[1] It will be referred to as Manifesto throughout this paper to make it easier to read.

Body: Groundwork


A parsimonious definition of “free speech” is; “… the freedom to express[1] one’s opinions without censorship, legal penalty, etc.; freedom of expression.”(Oxford English Dictionary: 6.3.2012[2]). This is also an absolute definition that has virtually never been practiced by any state at any time. Restrictions on free speech exist to avoid various perversions of it, like e.g. using right of free speech to excuse prank calls to the police or jelling death threats to those one dislikes. Using free speech for purposes such as blasphemy, slander, libel, defamation, racial hatred and conspiracy is also faced with various restrictions (Sunstein, 1993:62-63 & Oxford Dictionary of Politics:6.3.2012) [3]. Restrictions on free speech are more bluntly called censorship, and it varies between persons what term they use: e.g. a fundamentalist Christian might conclude that “the Book of Genesis” being excluded from science class is secularist censorship. There is a limit to the scope of free speech in any society, and this scope can be compared to a circumscribed circle around the core ideal use of free speech in that society.  

            Many philosophers have expressed their ideas on the nature of free speech; e.g. whether it is a natural or positive law or whether it should have a group or individual basis. Two types of arguments for free speech, a positive and  a negative, have been delineated. A positive argument for the protection of free speech is that it has multiple beneficial side-effects for society by establishing an open are for the distinction between truth and error, while the negative argument states in summary that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”(Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy:6.3.2012 ). Free speech is a term commonly associated with democracy, but that should neither be taken to mean that you can say whatever you want in democratic states nor that people had no right to express themselves before the coming of democracy.

            The term free speech will in this paper be used in regards to both the Republic and Manifesto. Even though neither work explicitly mentions free speech[4], they both deliberate on freedom, expression, and the relation between the two. Hence, I think these political theorists deliberations is worth closer investigation. Comparing them insofar as how they stand in regard to our modern democratic notion of free speech could easily lead to caricatures emerging since there is no society with complete presence or absence of free speech. The boundaries of free speech is shaped by the culture in which it operates, e.g. people who sympathize with Breiviks ideology face sanctions like losing their jobs; hence people do not have total freedom as far as expressing their opinions are concerned. I will however argue that the modern internet is an actual example of unrestricted free speech, since there is a great absence of restrictions.


Background and Context

Plato´s Republic was written around 380 BC, closely studied in Plato´s Academy, and is still a central piece in 21th century academic circles. It is the dialogue in which the character Socrates´ thought-experiment is nothing less than the creation of an ideal state, and also where he introduces the “Theory of Forms” and describes the “Form of the Good”. Of most importance for this paper is how this ideal state stands in regard to free speech and censorship, a topic especially confronted in book II and III of the Republic where a censorship program is delineated.

            Since Plato wrote the Republic, it is wise to take count of events that might have influenced, colored, his writing. Socrates, Plato´s friend and teacher, is the person who undoubtedly had the greatest influence on the development of Plato´s thoughts. Historians of philosophy have been presented with a momentous challenge when they attempt to distinguish Socrates from Plato´s thoughts since Socrates wrote nothing himself, leaving Plato with the writing. This should be kept in mind when reading the Republic; does Plato present the participants in the dialogue accurately? Philosophers before Socrates are called pre-Socratic, and they were primarily interested in natural phenomena and not the social world that fascinated Socrates; hence their influence on Plato was more limited. The great enemy of Plato and Socrates where the sophists. Sophists where teacher of rhetoric in those times who, in many of Plato´s dialogues, seem to be relativists not interested in finding those absolute truths Socrates and Plato searched for. We will later in this paper observe that we in the Republic find a Plato very worried about the dupability of the masses by unsound messages, and the perceived threat of sophism should be kept in mind in relation to that.(Brickhouse & Smith 2009)

            Politically, democracy collapsed in Athens by 404 BC after great political instability, and was replaced by the “Tyranny of the Thirty”.(Roochnik 2005:1) This decent into tyranny by way of the, apparently ,malignant side effects of democracy certainly shaped Plato´s thoughts. Book VIII discusses various regimes, and Socrates states that rhetoric dominates in democracies and that democracies collapse into tyrannies with the emergence of a seductive ruler (rhetorician) becoming a tyrant (Griffith & Ferrari 2011:565c).

            We are told in the first sentence of the Republic that the dialogue takes place in Pareus. This is important because Pareus contained many democratically minded individuals that wanted to fight, and if necessary die, in the battle against the aforementioned tyranny (Encyclopædia Britannica Online 21.3.2012): begging the question of whether democracy is worth dying for? The antagonism between supporters of the tyranny and those in favor of democracy culminated in the “Battle of Pareus” in 403 BC, leading to the reinstatement of democratic rule. Bear in mind that Socrates hence was sentenced to death (399 BC) before the writing of the Republic by an Athens under a reinstated democratic rule: his indictment being based on some loose association with the “Thirties Tyrrany” and that he corrupted the youth (Connor 22.2.2001:49-50). Democracy in Athens was direct and not representative like in our times, and only men who had been in the military could vote. The impression Plato and Socrates had of a chaotic expression of opinion (Griffith & Ferrari 2011:557b) under democracy should hence be seen in that historical light.

            Over 2200 years later Marx and Engels published their Manifesto, a pamphlet outlining the political program for establishing a communist society; the ideal society in their minds. I will primarily refer to Marx throughout this paper for the sake of brevity and frankly since their political theory primarily accredits Marx, hence its label “Marxism”. Living in a time where heavy industrialization shock the very foundation of society, Marx delineated an increasingly antagonistic dichotomy between the capitalist bourgeois owners of the means of production and the working class (proletariat) that would lead to a revolution: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”(Marx & Engels 1848:32).  Marx´s critique of bourgeois capitalism can seem alien to the modern reader whose standard of living has increased because of its mechanisms, and who might have witnessed the collapse of communist states the world over. However, these beneficial side effects of capitalism might not necessarily have evolved had it not been for the communists working to flare up the working class. Workers in early 19th century Europe where not protected by the type of labor rights that they have nowadays. These rights absence meant that the workers had very little leverage when it came to protesting against unfavorable working conditions, thus channeling their expression of discontent into unproductive streams like breaking machines and arson (Boyer 1998:154).  Proletarians did however get more opportunity to express discontent in more productive streams when unions and labor parties started to pop up, and Marxism did play a catalytic role in their emergence.  The Manifesto, being much shorter than the momentous Das Kapital, naturally appealed more to proletarians and others wanting to know the gist of the movement. The Manifesto, and Marxism in general, motivated workers to promote their interests in a political arena previously dominated by bourgeoisie.

[1]Verbally or non-verbally.

[2] I use reversed version of “International Standard ISO 8601” when specifying dates: [DD]-[MM]-{YYYY].

[3] Burning national or religious symbols is also restricted.  

[4] Tom Griffins translation of the Republic uses the phrase “freedom of speech” at 557b, but that phrase does not appear in Benjamin Jowetts translation. 557b indicates however in both translations that Socrates  refers to an absolute/unrestricted notion of free speech; especially so in Jowetts translation. We also see in his critique of democracy in book VIII that he has a freedom of speech in mind that is highly unrestricted. 

Body: Discussion

The idea of free speech begs the question of whether equality of thoughts naturally follows.  Socrates and Marx both fought for the expression of the thoughts of the oppressed, of the humble philosopher and proletariat respectively, but didn’t they first have to silence their oppressors to achieve this end? Certain ideas might simply be mutually exclusive; e.g. the impossibility of the ideas of the bourgeoisie and proletariat coexisting in Marx´s analysis, “… instill into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat …”(Marx & Engels1848:31). Socrates dreamed of a state shaped by the deep thinking of philosophers: products of his own deep thinking later being used to justify his execution.

            Both works hence have a clear conception of what the ideal use of speech is. Socrates thinks the philosophers thoughts are superior while we in the Manifesto see that the proletariat is “… the class that holds the future in its hands.” (Marx & Engels 1848:11); Marx teleological[1] reasoning behind this statement will be discussed later.


The Degree of Free Speech in Plato´s Republic    

Socrates opinions on who should be allowed to say what to whom is connected to  a complex system of thought, first of which is his idea of justice. You have justice when every member in society does what he is best suited to do; his craft. A doctor is reliable when it comes to medical matters but you would not ask the doctor about how to run the state itself, you leave that to the rulers of the city; the statesmen. Hence, only those who qualify as fit to rule should have a say in politics, and Socrates thinks that those who are best suited to this, philosophers, actually are those least interested in political power.

            While the Manifesto imagines a classless society, we see the polar opposite in the Republic. Class is destiny in the Republic, and people fall into three classes; bronze (workers), silver (soldiers) and gold (rulers): the bronze souled can be compared to Marx proletariat who should be subjugated according to Socrates. The soul itself is also divided into three parts; the appetive (instincts), spirited (courage and will) and the rational (Griffith & Ferrari 2011:439d). Does Socrates mean that the worker is dominated by instincts? Socrates class division is introduced in book III when he tells “the Nobel Lie”. According to the “lie” people are not the children of their parents but Earth herself, and are born with either a bronze, silver or gold soul. The idea of inherent differences between people are seen in modern times as well, with reference to genes in place of soul. Recent findings in genetics, with certain genes being analogous to the different metals, actually point towards strong heritability in regards to various personality characteristics (Kandler et al. 2011) and intelligence (Deary et al. 2010). Deterioration would ensue if differently souled people mated with each other and/or take on roles in society not suited to their quality of soul: in a word eugenics. We see however in book VIII that Socrates admits that it with be logistically impossible to initiate such a eugenics program (Griffith & Ferrari 2011: 546a-547a). Contrary to Marx, Socrates seems to think that lose, or no, class divisions will result in clashes between the classes.

            As aforementioned the Republic outlines a clear program of what should and shouldn’t be allowed to be expressed, and entitles the philosopher (the Guardian) as the person best suited to this task of censorship. This program is detailed especially in book II and III; the content in poetry, storytelling, songs and myths are all to be regulated; “… Hesiod and Homer both used to tell us – and the other prophets. They made up untrue stories ” (Griffith & Ferrari 2011:377d-e).  Younger minds are reckoned as especially vulnerable due to their plasticity. 

            Socrates´ reasoning behind why the philosopher, not simply being the right ruler, but also the right censor is quite extensive and needs some careful attention, firstly by looking at “the Divided Line” in book VI. He is generally suspicious of the human sensory apparatus and thinks it has various detrimental impacts on our ability to perceive the purest (highest) reality. Accordingly  there is a hierarchy from the lowest to the highest kind of cognition. Our imagination is constructed from our experience with sensible things, and imagination is hence the lowest kind of cognition. Sensible things are however not dependent on our imagination, we trust their persistence, but they are only fleeting images of mathematical objects; the number 10 can be used to count tens of any sensible thing and hence mathematical objects exist on a higher plane (that of thought) in relation to sensible things. Mathematics is however not the highest nor most real kind of cognition, being only intellection, mathematical objects are only images of forms and forms are images of the Idea of the Good (Griffith & Ferrari 2011:509d-511e). 

            Socrates´ realizes that hierarchy of cognition is hard to digest, especially the Idea of the good, and tries to concretize it by using a parable after he realizes that using the sun as a metaphor is insufficient; “the Parable of the Cave” can be found in book VII. Imagine having lived your entire life tightly shackled in a dimly lit cave. All your visual experience is based on shadows thrown upon the cave wall in front of you, and talking about shadows is all you and your fellows know of. If a fellow cave dweller is released and walks outside, his eyes will need time to adapt to the vibrant sun and a colorful terrestrial surface, but once adapted he will be able to digest this higher reality. He will not be able to make this reality intelligible to his cave dwelling associates on his way back because they are adapted to such a paucity of perception and cognition, and they might even kill him on the basis that they think he is mad.  

            The gist of the parable is that people have a tendency to believe that their own level of cognition is reality itself, and only the philosopher questions reality enough to access the highest kinds of cognition. Those streams of thought that are to dominate society are those that are closest to the Idea of the Good itself. Philosophers being those who are better suited to access the highest kinds of reality, and hence truth, should be the ones with most power in society (Griffith & Ferrari 2011:473d-474e). Plato actually tried to turn the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse into a philosopher king, but Dionysius was not inclined to let Plato have allot of influence over his policy making (Klosko 2006:7). He also tried to turn his son Dionysius II towards a more philosophical mindset, but Plato´s hopes were left unfulfilled. 


The Degree of Free Speech in the Manifesto        

Certain aspects that form the foundation of Marx thoughts has to be introduced to make his ideas on the ideal use of free speech intelligible. Marx studied the teleology of history under German professor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who is especially known for The Phenomenology of  Spirit, but Marx was not interested in Hegel´s spiritual perspective on history. Marx rather became the most central figure in the development of an atheistic version of Hegelianism mixed with Heraclitus´ works; that was later known as dialectical materialism.(Laski Spring.1999:49-51)       

            Central to Marx way of thinking was hence that history undergoes a teleological development in which earlier stages in history represent logical steppingstones up to present times; “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”(Marx & Engels1848:3). Marx applauds in the Manifesto that the bourgeois has tore down the feudal order of society, but he believes firmly that the next stage in the teleological unfolding of history is the rise of the proletariat. The rise of the proletariat, being the largest class in society, would represent the end of class struggles and the end of history;  the communist society is even talked of as the New Jerusalem (Marx & Engels1848:27). This idea of a teleology of history is heavily criticized, and one could argue that history can be characterized by both progression and retrogression. It can further be argued that thinking of history as teleological can instill the notion that one can predict the further development of it, like Marx did, and that this is a dangerous kind of arrogance; if not outright hubris. Scholars like Emery Key Hunt argues however that Marx dialectic is not teleological, but there is much evidence from Marx´s own writings that he believed he could predict the future (Edgell and Townshend  9.1993:726-727).

            Ideal use of free speech, expression of opinion, would be to give the proletariat the opportunity to play out its revolutionary role through protests against the hegemony of the bourgeoisie: “… the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation …” (Marx & Engels1848:18). This notion results from his ideas of the dialectic of history, it is simply the rational march of history unfolding itself. Marx´s strong belief in this teleology could easily legitimate the use of suppression of the previous order in order to mediate the rise of the new. As seen in the excerpt below, the fiery rhetoric in the Manifesto is quite intense.

            In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.

(Marx & Engels1848:12)

It can however be argued that Marx only refers to the bourgeois social structure in society, and not the violent overthrow of the actual people who are bourgeoisie. Marx further speak of the communist society as a society of ultimate freedom and even that the rule of the proletariat is temporary. The anarchist Michael Bakunin thinks this promise of freedom is a lure, and that the state in the communist society will be the new oppressor (Bakunin 5.1927:229). It may be somewhat striking at first that both Marx and Engels where bourgeoisie themselves, while at the same time being the most vocal voices on the side of the proletariat. They are aware of this and state that at the climax of the class struggle “… a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.” (Marx & Engels1848:12). Following the Enlightenment tradition, they are keenly focused on equality and ventures to set that as the primal virtue of a communist society.         

            According to the communists, previous historical movements have been for the interest of minorities or lead directly by them. The paradigmatic shift with the communist revolution is that, being for and by the proletariat, it is the first time in which a majority has revolted. Through a successful revolution originating in the hitherto lowest stratum of society, complete equality and freedom can be realized.

            Unlike the Republic there is no explicit outline of a censorship program in the Manifesto, but that which is not made explicit may well be implicitly stated. Communist revolutions have historically been heavily focused on censorship, and  the aforementioned intense rhetoric in the Manifesto does not seem to leave much room for doubt or diplomacy.


The Internet: An Actual Example of Unrestricted Free Speech?

The internet has made this topic of liberalization contra restriction of free speech much more sensitive because the internet is hitherto very unregulated. Young people, children included, are generally more skilled at using computers than their parents, and this restricts how much control parents can wield. Violent pornography is, perhaps surprisingly, not the worst that the internet has to offer. The 21th century saw the dawn of websites depicting videos and images of real murders, rapes, torture, car crashes, necrophilia, accidents and other highly graphic content. was one of the first in a successive line of some of the most extreme expressions of free speech to date,,,, and is just a short list of sites showing content so graphic that it could traumatize virtually anyone. I visited one of these sites as a part of the final research for this paper and was shocked to see that the highest rated video on was of two men mutilating the body of a young teen girl they had killed, bear in mind that this was not some Hollywood special effects but reality in its grimmest form.

            While censorship restricts free speech, I am assured that many would agree that there are things going on in the virtual space that should be censored. Censure of the internet is practiced in communist China, and while few would advocate using China as a blueprint, the time is ripe to ask whether free speech has gone too far on the internet. 

[1] The idea that nature, or history in Marx case, evolves along a kind of purposeful path or grand design. 


As concerns the Republic and the Manifesto, neither work pictures a society of total censorship nor unrestricted free speech. One recurring challenge when comparing works in political theory spanning long tracts of time is that words change their denotation and connotation. Such changes happen very rapidly even between generations in our own times, so it’s unsurprising that 2200 years would amount to great changes. The author tried to compensate for this by placing the two works into their historical context while at the same time noting their current relevance. There has never been a time with zero free speech, neither one with unbridled free speech; though current times in the western world are certainly liberal, we do not have to look that far back into history before we find a Europe cluttered with totalitarian regimes.

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