Free speech? Yes. Civil peace? No.

Submitted by AWL on 14 April, 2008 - 8:22 Author: Tom Unterrainer

How should student and labour movement activists respond to fascists being given a platform to speak — in student unions for example? Do normal considerations about “free speech” not apply?

Comrades Adam and Beth are committed student activists who spend more time doing political activity than they do on college work. The leader of the British National Party (BNP) youth section is a student at their college and has organised a public meeting with party leader Nick Griffin.

Posters have gone up around campus and leaflets have been distributed. The college’s “free speech” policy allows for any and all types of political meetings and both the student union and administration have declared that the meeting can go ahead without official opposition. The comrades meet to discuss an organised response:

A: We can’t have that filth from the BNP parading around our campus telling racist lies. Those people have no rights — we should shut them up

B: What do you mean “shut them up”? Do you really believe they have no rights? I think we should hear them out, give them a platform. The only way to counter their lies is to engage them in debate. If free speech means anything, it must apply to those we disagree with. There can be no exceptions!

A: I don’t care if we violate their rights to free speech. There are exceptions to every rule. The BNP whips up racist sentiment, it encourages and orchestrates violent attacks.

B: Are you saying that the college should ban them? If we ask for an official banning order, the college could just as easily ban our meetings. I think the best thing to do is let them have their say and take them up on the issues. Students aren’t stupid, they’ll see through the racist lies.

A: You just don’t understand, do you? These people simply have no rights to free speech. They fall outside the box of democratic freedom and civil liberties.

The issue being debated out by Adam and Beth is a live one for students, trade unionists and political activists. The question of who is given a political platform, who has the “right to speak” and how to respond to organisations like the BNP is still largely unresolved for many activists.

Yes, there are anti-fascist demonstrations. Yes, most people in the National Union of Students and labour movement oppose the BNP, holocaust-deniers like David Irving, racists, homophobes and other bigots. But if you ask a selection of liberals, radical activists, anti-fascists and socialists to explain how to organise opposition to the BNP and on what basis, you can expect a bewildering and sometimes worrying array of answers.

Beth’s views will be familiar to many of us. Sections of the labour movement instantly baulk at the idea of militant opposition, whether it be against fascists or the state. Those “Free Tibet” protesters who attacked the Olympic Flame rather than stand chanting behind police lines have been condemned for their actions. Some Labour Party members and officials oppose demonstrations against the BNP because they fear stepping outside of “legal norms” and claim that these actions only give publicity to the fascists.

For many liberals, complying with the “law” of a bourgeois state is the first and only concern in these matters.

But of these two sets of opinions, Adam’s is the most worrying. In practice his argument dumps all rights to free speech. He claims that because the BNP is a vile racist organisation, it has no right to express its opinions.

If Adam disagrees strongly enough with someone or something, that person or organisation should be silenced. This line of argument is based on what Hal Draper critically termed the “hierarchy of values”. In Adam’s hierarchy of values “free speech is only one rung; stopping the [fascists] barbarism is a higher value; therefore the right to free speech must give way before this value” (Hal Draper, Free Speech and Political Struggle).

This position boils the right to free speech down to a selective, elitist determination — a determination made by supposedly more enlightened individuals, whether they be a student activist or the state: “Within movements of social dissent, there has always been a strong or dominant wing of reformists and reformers, on the one hand; and, on the other, there have also been elitist and dictatorial currents of radicalism or ‘revolutionism’ more or less openly anti-democratic, often reflecting the aspirations of alienated intellectuals for a ‘dictatorship of the intelligentsia’ which would permit them to impose their own ‘hierarchy of values’ on the society they detested.

“Both of these have been quite distinct from the third current of revolutionary socialism-from-below” (Draper).

To insist that fascists have no right to free speech and — worse — to insist that the state ban them is a step away from consistent, democratic principles. Socialists fight in the here and now, develop demands and organisations based on our ideas: “There can be no contradiction, no gulf in principle, between what we demand of this existing state, and what we propose for the society we want to replace it, a free society.” To in any way abandon free speech is to abandon this fight.

The problem for Adam and Beth — and for a good many real activists — is that combating fascism (or mounting political action against reactionary organisations, institutions, companies or individuals) is not a question of free speech: “The question of free speech comes alive in the context of social struggles, and only juridical cretins can believe that all social struggles are resolvable by any kind of speech, free or otherwise. In the last analysis, the more basic social struggles are not decided by government rules or in the courts, but by the contest of power.”

A strike, the struggle for civil rights or the vote, a revolution — these are not questions of free speech: “this does not mean that, once the situation has become a contest of power, there is no longer any question of free speech on your own side of the lines, within your own camp. There most certainly is. But the free-speech issue is on longer an issue as between the two sides that have broken out of the framework of civil peace.”

When socialists are faced with the threat of organised fascists — a very real threat not just for ourselves but for the wider labour movement, black people, immigrants and LGBT people — we are not choosing whether or not to negate their rights of free speech. The problem will not be solved by declaring our morally superior values. When faced with such a threat we move from the ground of normal “civil peace” onto the ground of contested power.

Consider the rise of fascism in Weimar Germany. Nazi thugs were allowed to operate with relative freedom and where they were arrested — for attacking Jews, communists and trade unionists — their crimes were treated lightly by Weimar judges, even in cases of murder.

The Nazis were not given space to operate on the basis of defending their rights to free speech but because their actions were approved of: “If the Nazi movement had confined itself to speeches (including fascist speeches), it would never have been the danger it was. No rights to free speech had to be curtailed by a millimetre in order to have an abundance of grounds for rounding up the entire Nazi leadership years before they became a clear and present danger.”

Socialists do not organise opposition to fascism because we object to their speech. Fascists like the BNP do not seek out platforms in student unions, do not hold public meetings, paper sales, stand in elections etc... because they want people to hear them speak. The BNP is a political formation that organises to take power and all of their activities work towards this aim. We oppose their actions, not their speech. To repeat, the struggle against fascism is a question of taking sides in a contest of power.

The idea of “No Platform” — literally the stopping individuals and groups from getting a platform — suffers from a number of interpretations. Many of them are based on the ideas set out above. Socialists favour “No Platform” as one tactic against fascist activity, in the right circumstances, but it is not our central, guiding principle.

Rather, our basic policy is for a class mobilisation for socialism and a workers’ united front for self-defence. In general we oppose state bans because the laws behind any such bans could easily be deployed against the labour movement and revolutionary socialists. Stopping a meeting in a “democratic space” — such as a student union — is another matter.

In any case, “No Platform” is one possible tactic, not a principle. Stopping fascist activity is not a matter of silencing their ideas but of preventing their plans for physical violence. If “No Platform” is elevated to the guiding idea and main tactic of anti-fascism there are two negative potential consequences:

1. That the task of cutting the social roots of fascism by socialism is abandoned and

2. As a principle it can lead to counter-productive confrontation. An anti-fascist campaign that concentrates on mobilising to “No Platform” the BNP may well do so at the expense of building within the labour movement.

“Revolutionary socialists... want to push to the limit all the presuppositions and practices of the fullest democratic involvement of the greatest mass of people. To the limit: that is, all the way. No progressive transformation is possible except insofar as the largest mass of plain people from way below in society start moving.

“And this movement both requires, and also helps bring about, the fullest opening-up of society to democratic controls from below not their further restriction. It means the breaking up of anti-democratic limitations and restrictions. It means the greater unleashing of new initiatives from below” (Draper).

The question of free speech and No Platform in the context of fascism is a political test. A test that should be applied rigorously within student politics, the labour movement and anti-fascist activity.

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