"No platform" and free speech

Submitted by AWL on 23 March, 2006 - 3:33

By Violet Martin

Our basic policy is free speech. The capitalist class has a partial interest in free speech — within limits. The working class has a much more profound interest in free speech.

Socialism means the defeat of entrenched power by the mobilisation of long downtrodden millions of people who at last dare to have thoughts and dreams other than those handed down by official society; thus it needs free debate. And free speech (real free speech, not the limited free speech available in a society where a wealthy minority monopolises the media, education, leisure...) is a vital part of the socialism we fight for.

Of course, we know that history proceeds through class struggle. We are not pacifists, abstract idealists or dogmatists. The needs of the class struggle stand higher than any democratic principle; moreover, there is no God, no umpire standing above us, to impose democracy on the contending forces in the class war.

But we are not short-sighted pragmatists, either. Any political party, at any time, obviously appears likely to have short-term gain from suppressing and silencing those whose views it detests. Any but the most short-sighted, or most determinedly totalitarian, political party will, however, consider the danger in such action of isolating itself and turning the sympathy of democratically-minded but non-partisan people towards its opponent. Socialists will consider the additional danger of any short-term gains compromising the long-term aims of working-class democracy.

Bureaucratic and suppressive methods of maintaining left-wing control in trade unions have frequently undermined the strength of the union and, sooner or later, rebounded.

In the student movement in the 1980s, “no platform" policies against right-wingers paved the way for advocates of “identity politics", or demagogues, to brand the left as racist, sexist and homophobic. Policies of “no platform" for fascists, racists, or right-wingers of one sort or another spiralled into great confusion. The Easter 1986 conference of the National Union of Students saw one low point. One faction of leftists wanted “no platform for Zionists"; the conference enforced “no platform for idiot anti-Zionists" by banning a badge which compared Zionism to fascism.

Fascism is different

Fascism is different from other strands of right-wing politics, in that it threatens, immediately and physically, the very existence of working-class organisation and, often, the lives of oppressed minorities. The basic Marxist policy against it is:

* Mass working-class mobilisation for socialism as the answer to the crisis of capitalism which breeds fascism;

* A workers' united front for physical self-defence.

Trotsky argued against any support for bourgeois state bans on fascists on the grounds that they would be ineffective and inevitably, by increasing the repressive powers of the bourgeois state, facilitate blows against the workers. Nevertheless, he argued for the fight against fascism to be carried out in a civil-war spirit, with no tenderness for any democratic right of the fascists.

Why does not that contradict our general position for free speech? In more or less normal bourgeois-democratic politics, working-class socialists have a framework to operate mostly through peaceful agitation. Even in the best bourgeois democracy we usually need a constant struggle to stop our own democratic rights, even our formal rights, being nibbled away. Short of civil war — which must, of course, be fought as civil war — we have no tactical interest in attacking the democratic rights of other forces within the bourgeois democracy, even those we abhor. Here and there it may be possible to secure the suppression of right-wing forces when they are outside the currently dominant bourgeois consensus. Often we will shed no tears. But to champion such suppression places us on the shaky ground of demanding the silencing of those outside the bourgeois consensus when we, in fact, are outside that consensus ourselves. It will rebound on us just as soon as our voice becomes annoying or threatening enough for the capitalist class.

The American experience

Unless free speech is free speech for ideas that someone finds repulsive or offensive, it is not free speech; and we need free speech.

James P Cannon explained this well in his pamphlet Socialism on Trial. The US Trotskyist movement which he led organised many big and militant demonstrations against fascists, but never under slogans like “no platform". In a country where civil liberties ideology was strong — so they argued — and anti-communism was at least as strong as anti-fascism, to be seen as going for the forcible suppression of the speeches and meetings of the far right could only isolate the socialists, make them appear anti-democratic, and open them to witch-hunts. It was better and more effective to take a stand on the right to self-defence and to counter-demonstrate.

In Minneapolis in the 1930s they organised a workers' defence guard. It never said it wanted to stop the fascists meeting or marching — only that it wanted to defend the labour movement. But the fact of its existence led the local fascists — the “Silver Shirts" — to declare that they were afraid to meet or march in Minneapolis.

“No platform" for racists?

Violent racist groups should be fought according to the laws of war, even if they are not strictly fascists. However, the general slogan “no platform for racists" creates more problems than it solves. Racism is a widespread ideology. Any working-class activist knows that you have to argue with racists, not just proclaim that they are beyond the pale. We should argue in such a way as to make clear that we do not see racism as a normal difference of opinion; and we supplement argument by actions and by support for various forms of autonomous black organisation. All that is different from “no platform".

So also is a rule in a trade union or other working-class organisation barring racist or sexist comments in meetings different from “no platform" for racists or sexists. There must be a grey area between upholding standards of civilised behaviour inside the labour movement, on the one hand, and upholding the rights in the wider society of speech and advocacy which the bourgeois consensus does not consider civilised. And a grey area, too, between general racist (or other reactionary) ideas at one end of the spectrum, and direct incitement to violence at the other. But grey areas between different things do not mean that there is no difference between them. If we slip into advocating “no platform for racists" on the grounds that racist ideas are repulsive, offensive, lead ultimately to violence, etc., then why not “no platform for sexists", “no platform for Zionists", “no platform for Arab chauvinists", “no platform for Tories", “no works by D H Lawrence in public libraries”...?

Fascism is different from other strands of right-wing politics. It grows from the start by violent, unlawful attacks on its opponents and scapegoats. And its forces are irregular, street-fighting groups: they can be defeated by the working-class movement short of a full-scale civil war against the state.

The classic Marxist discussions are focused on defending working-class buildings, meetings, demonstrations and newspapers against fascist bands. They relate to situations where the fascists are so strong that a slogan of “no platform for fascists" is senseless. But their spirit is clearly not one of a purely defensive stance or waiting for the fascists to strike the first blow. Trotsky wrote about workers' defence guards going out to smash fascist meetings.

Fascism is a movement of immediate civil war against the left, against those whom the fascists choose to scapegoat, and against the working class, and war must be fought as war.

It does not follow that “no platform" is the best slogan to express that thought, still less that it is a principle.

War knows tactics other than the offensive. There is no principle which says that socialists have to strive to break up every fascist meeting. Such a “principle" would just consume our energies in endless chasing after right-wing cranks, and in ill-chosen battles with the police. Tactically, it would also put us in a position where we seem not to be striking blows in a war for democratic rights against the fascists, but to be starting our own war against democratic rights.

The French left

In France, in 1973, one of the biggest revolutionary socialist groups, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), mobilised many thousands of people to try to stop a meeting of a fascist fringe group in Paris. The result was a very violent battle with thousands of police, and the outlawing of the LCR. The LCR suffered a major setback, and its later comments indicate that its leaders came to conclude that its tactics in 1973 had been foolish. Though brave, those tactics certainly did not stop the fascists.

Until 1983 the fascists remained a more or less isolated minority, not particularly weaker than in 1973 but not particularly stronger either. Then, in 1983, they rapidly gained electoral strength on the back of mass disillusion with the Socialist Party-led government elected in 1981. The Front National (together with its recent split-off, the MNR) has retained about 10% of the vote in France, sometimes more, ever since then.

For small left groups to attempt to “no platform" the French fascists now — exclude them from public life by sheer force of militant demonstrations — is not feasible. More energetic “no platform" tactics back in the 1970s — but how could they have been more energetic than the LCR's? — would not have prevented the mass disillusion with the Socialist Party-led government.

All that could have made a difference was the building-up of the working-class left to a stature where it could more successfully appeal to the disillusioned.

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