Inside the student movement: What is “extreme”?

Submitted by Anon on 16 August, 2005 - 10:28

By Daniel Randall

Following the 7/7 bombings in London, the tabloid press has been full of righteous denunciations of “extremists” of all stripes. Fair enough, you might think. The belief that blowing hundreds of public transport users up is a good way to get a political point across is pretty “extreme”.

Pav Akhtar, the Black Students’ Officer of the National Union of Students, told the Guardian on 20 July that the union was “working with [Universities UK] on their project to combat extremism on campus — including extremism related to political issues, animal rights, the BNP, homophobia and racism, for example — and we welcome moves by any organisation that seeks to highlight this issue.”

Again, at first glance it all seems pretty innocuous. BNP? Bad. Homophobia? Bad. Racism? Bad. Even animal rights campaigners who think it’s okay to murder scientists are pretty bad. So what’s the problem?

The problem is, exactly what do they mean by “extreme”? If someone’s an “extremist” what are they “extreme” in relation to? None of these people stop to think about what their definition of “extreme” might be.

Denouncing fascists like the BNP or al-Queda-type terrorists for being “extreme” both misses the point and lets them off the hook. The BNP and Islamists are not bad because their views are “extreme” in relation to the moderate mainstream of bourgeois politics, they are bad because their views are against universal human rights and because they present an immediate physical threat to political and social freedoms.

Combating the “extremism related to political issues” mentioned by Akhtar could mean anything.

It could mean us! The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is a Marxist organisation. We believe in an revolutionary struggle between the forces of labour and the forces of capital. When the capitalist class fight back the workers will have to put up a “violent” defence of their revolution. This makes us “extremists” to a lot of people. So does Pav’s vision of an |anti-extremism” NUS involve clamping down on revolutionary organisations on campus?

The history of social progress can be seen as a history of victories for “extremists.” Take, for example, the idea of universal suffrage. Those occupying the bourgeois political centre (against which notions of “extremism” are defined) claim this idea as their own, but universal suffrage would not exist if it had not been fought for over decades of political struggle led by “extremists” including sometimes armed workers in the Chartist movement or Marxists like Sylvia Pankhurst.

As part of moves against “extremism” the Blair government is attempting to outlaw Islamist organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Al-Muhajiroun. Hizb ut-Tahrir was recently added to a list of organisations to whom the NUS “no platform” policy applies — banning their meetings in student unions.

In the context of this debate about extremism, it will be very easy for right-wing bureaucrats in the student movement to spin the “no platform” position into a catch-all policy that can be used to prevent anyone whose views they find disagreeable from being given a hearing.

However unpleasant we find the views of fascists and other violent racists, we should not “no platform” them on this basis. If we do it, it is because they use meetings and political platforms to organise a physical threat to ethnic minorities and, for that matter, a democratically organised student movement. Denying fascists a platform is not aimed at preventing “extreme” — even extremely reactionary — views from being spoken, but as a basic measure of self-defence for our unions.

It is for these same reasons that state-imposed bans, in the whole of society, on political organisations, even violently bigoted, fascistic organisations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, cannot be supported. The capitalist system creates the social conditions which drive young workers into the arms of these reactionaries; so relying on the administrators of that same system to protect us from those reactionaries is, at best, deeply naive.

In times of acute political crisis, rulers-in-danger see only potential threats to the stability of their power, and measures used today to outlaw Islamists or other reactionaries could be used in the future to repress people that the ruling-class considers dangerously “extreme” —(Marxists leading a large strike, for example).

The National Union of Students and its officers should stop using the terms “extremist” as a term of condemnation. They are implicitly condemning countless student activists around campaigns like People and Planet, No Sweat and War on Want who hold views which are oppostiional — on subjects such as human rights, sweatshop labour and trade justice.

The AWL belongs to a socialist tradition that places great value on calling things by their proper names. This is a time, when many difficult political questions are being posed very sharply, when we need to do that more than ever. Islamists and fascists should be explicitly condemned and opposed on an ideological and organisational basis for being violent reactionaries, not for being “extreme”.

Daniel Randall is a member of the NUS National Executive.

Putting activist politics back in the student movement

12-7pm Saturday 3 September, University of East London docklands site

Co-hosted by UEL students’ union, Students Against Sweatshops and Education Not for Sale.

www.free-education.org / 07961 040618

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