The events of June 1855 at Speakers’ Corner inspired Karl Marx to declare that the English proletariat had begun their inexorable rise and that social revolution leading to a communist state was under way.
“This alliance between a degenerate, dissipated and pleasure-seeking aristocracy and the church — built on a foundation of filthy and calculated profiteering on the part of the beer magnates and monopolistic wholesalers — gave rise to a mass demonstration in Hyde Park yesterday, such as London has not seen since the death of George V,” Marx wrote in the German newspaper Neue Oder-Zeitung.
“We witnessed the event from beginning to end and believe we can state without exaggeration that yesterday in Hyde Park the English revolution began,” he wrote, adding that it was an “unparliamentary, extra-parliamentary and antiparliamentary demonstration.”
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that other leading light of communist thought, arrived in London in 1902 and spent as much time as possible at Speakers’ Corner, according to the biographer Nadezhda Krupskaya in her 1933 book “Memories of Lenin.”
“Vladimir Ilyich was always attracted by working class crowds,” she wrote. “He went wherever they were to be found.”
“Ilyich would listen attentively and afterward joyfully exclaim: ‘Socialism is simply oozing from them. The speaker talks rot, and a worker gets up and immediately, taking the bull by the horns, himself lays bare the essence of Capitalist Society,’ ” she wrote.
“Ilyich always placed his hope on the rank-and-file British workmen who, in spite of everything, preserved his class instinct.”
By its very nature — granting a forum to those who would not otherwise have one — Speaker’s Corner has appealed to those on the left of the political spectrum; other visitors included Friedrich Engels, George Orwell, famous for his political diatribe “Animal Farm,” and the Pankhurst sisters, who led the vociferous and sometimes violent suffragette campaign to win the vote for women.
Not all of them were successful in their aims, however. Oliver Cromwell’s corpse was left hanging in a cage from the Tyburn tree in 1658 as a warning to the public of the folly of attempting to abolish the monarchy.
Hanging days have, of course, long gone, but the desire of the ordinary people to have their voices heard is unlikely to disappear. In recognition of this, British Home Secretary Jack Straw called in 1998 for a speakers’ corner to be set up in towns across the country.
“A hundred and fifty years ago, towns and cities, and the open meetings which took place there, were at the heart of the hurly-burly of political life on everything from corn prices to electoral reform,” he said. “I am keen to revitalize this tradition and encourage local communities to take part and have their say, both by speaking out and by participating in public meetings.”
A working party has been set up to look at how local councils might be able to set aside “soapbox sites,” with the aim of invigorating local democracy.
“As I know from my own experience, they are an effective way of keeping politicians on their toes,” Straw said.
Other countries have had similar experiments with forums for free speech, including Singapore, where Speakers’ Corner is based broadly on the tenets of its forerunner half a world away.
There are, however, some important differences between the two, with Heiko Khoo, of the Speakers’ Corner Movement, feeling compelled to write to the Singapore Straits Times in April 2000 to complain about the regulation limiting orators to Singaporeans.
“This is very restrictive and to say that ‘it should not become an avenue for foreigners to pursue their own agendas’ is a little strange,” he wrote. “After all, is not a speakers’ corner designed for people to pursue their own agendas by definition?”
He added that such a limitation would be widely seen as racist, pointing out that Iraqis were given the right to speak out in London while British warplanes bombed Baghdad during the Gulf War.
“Surely it is the essence of free speech that you invite people of other religions and viewpoints to speak,” he pointed out.
Other regimes have banned outright attempts to promote free speech: In 1979, Wei Jing Sheng was arrested in China after establishing a “Democracy Wall” in Beijing.
With a group of like-minded friends, Wei affixed blank posters to a wall, enabling anyone and everyone to write down an opinion or belief — or reply to one — on any topic. The government frowned on this show of defiance and clamped down on the nascent forum.
Today’s rapid growth of the Internet and, in general, the increasing liberalization of many former hardline regimes now offers the right of free speech and free thought to more people than ever before. Speakers’ Corner should accept at least some of the applause for that.