Andrei Sakharov’s Demands for Freedom of Speech and Information

Andrei Sakharov pic

Soviet Dissident Andrei Sakharov, ardent campaigner for peace, freedom of speech and information. These are not qualities the present British government likes either.

Andrei Sakharov was one of the most famous and determined dissidents of the former Soviet Union. In his bitter criticism of the Soviet state and especially Stalinism for its horrific abuse of human rights, as well as the other ideologies threatening the survival of the world and its peoples – racism, fascism, Maoism and militaristic demagogy, Sakharov demanded freedom of speech and the freedom to obtain information. In the 1974 book, Sakharov Speaks, he comments on the immense of importance of freedom of speech and information, and the terrible threats posed to them. He stated

Intellectual freedom is essential to human society – freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such as trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into a bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economy and culture.

But freedom of thought is under a triple threat in modern society – from the deliberate opium of mass culture, from cowardly, egotistic, and philistine ideologies, and from the ossified dogmatism of a bureaucratic oligarchy and its favourite weapon, ideological censorship. Therefore, freedom of thought requires the defence of all thinking and honest people. This is a mission not only for the intelligentsia but for all strata of society, particularly its most active and organised stratum, the working class. The world-wide dangers of war, famine, cults of personality, and bureaucracy – these are perils for all mankind.

Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism: Vol. 1 – Communism in Russia (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd 1985) 372.

Amongst the democratic reforms he demanded, as well as measures to ensure peaceful coexistence and end hunger, was for a Soviet Freedom of Information Act. He said

A law on press and information must be drafted, widely discussed, and adopted, with the aim not only of ending irresponsible and irrational censorship, but also of encouraging self-study in our society, fearless discussion, and the search for truth. The law must provide for the material resources of freedom of thought.

Ibid, p. 373.

Sakharov was writing in the repressive conditions of the former Soviet Union during the reign of Brezhnev, the President, who had ended the Prague Spring of 1968 by sending in the tanks to preserve Communist rule. Yet his comments are also unfortunately still very much applicable in the 21st century, including contemporary Britain.

Mike and a number of other bloggers have had their requests for information from the government under the Freedom of Information Act repeatedly turned down. In Mike’s case, this was for information on the number of people, who had died after being found ‘fit for work’ by Atos. Individual requests for this information had been refused by the Department for Work and Pensions as it was deemed too expensive and difficult to justify retrieving the information for just one person. When others asked for the same information, like Mike over at Vox Political, it was refused as ‘vexatious’.

We do indeed have a Freedom of Information Act, though in this and many other instances it obviously did the opposite of ‘encouraging self-study, fearless discussion and the search for truth’. I’ve commented before, as has the Angry Yorkshireman on the strong similarity between the government’s workfare programme, and the forced labour campaigns under Stalin. Here our government bureaucracy is also showing another, Stalinist trait – it appears to be an ossified bureaucratic hierarchy based on dogmatism and censorship. The government has replaced much of the senior civil service with Special Advisors, drawn from right-wing think tanks and private industry, who tell it exactly what it wants to hear.

Its economic and welfare policies are also pure dogmatism. Despite the considerable evidence that the economy is not improving, that people are becoming much poorer, and that starvation and malnutrition are returning once again to British society – the government is continuing with its policies, and denying that their harmful effects are actually occurring. Maggie’s former Cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, was in the Daily Fail yesterday repeating the old lie that people were using food banks, not because they were starving, but simply because it was cheap food. It’s a lie of the same type, though hardly on the same scale, as Stalin’s propaganda in the 1930s that the USSR was a land of plenty where food was more than abundant, filled with happy, smiling peasants, while the truth was the absolute reverse: that people were dying in their tens of millions from famine.

The type of regime blocking and censoring inquiries into the political reality are from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, both regimes share a common mindset – the desire to preserve the regime from criticism at all costs. The Department of Work and Pensions stated at one point quite openly that they would not reveal the information about the numbers of people, who had died due to their welfare reforms as this would turn public opinion against them, and so stop them going ahead with the reforms.

Sakharov’s defence of freedom of speech and information against the repression of the Soviet speech was one of the greatest statements of this fundamental human right in the 20th century. Sadly, it is even now needed as much as ever in Conservative and Conservative Democrat Britain in the 20th century. Free speech and information needs the active support by all of us, and particularly by the working class. It is the working and lower middle classes, who are being hit the hardest by the Coalition’s welfare reforms, and they clearly recognise that they have something to fear from a British public armed with the truth.


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