Free speech, no-platforming and fighting the RightDecember 21, 2018
The topic of no-platforming has come up intermittently in the student movement over the last few years. This is a tactic is to deny political opponents a speaking platform, either by appealing to universities or student unions to ban them from speaking, or by organising disruptive ‘direct action’ to prevent speaking engagements. This tactic is not just used against the far-right, but also against transphobic, second-wave feminists such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel. On the other hand, it has even been used against left-wingers, such as the assistant general secretary of the RMT Steve Hedley and the Labour MP Chris Williamson.
Recently, right-wingers have said that the no-platforming of far-right speakers proves that the left is ‘anti-free speech’. They claim that left-wingers and proponents of identity politics are ‘the real fascists.’ On the other hand, supporters of no-platforming make the argument that fascists, and also sexists, racists and transphobes, hold harmful views that do not deserve a platform.
The appeals of the right-wing for ‘free speech’ ring hollow, not least because they trip over themselves to stop left-wingers speaking whenever they can. Free speech is an entirely abstract concept. The idea that every group in society has the right to speak freely is untrue. There are all sorts of constraints on the freedom of information and speech. The ruling class can afford the time and money to inform themselves and convey their viewpoint to others using the media (which is owned and controlled by a handful of millionaires), the education system etc. This is something that most workers can’t afford. Workers on strike don’t usually get asked for television interviews and can’t afford to hire billboards. The state, through its laws and courts, places restrictions on what people can and can’t say, which are impossible to understand and expensive to navigate. On paper, we all have the ‘right’ to free speech. In reality, the only speech which is really ‘free’ is that of the rich, the establishment, and the ruling class.
We are not interested in this false, abstract freedom of speech that exists only on paper. We are fighting for real, tangible freedom for the vast majority of people – the working class – against those who seek to exploit and oppress us. At the end of the day, this cannot be achieved by ‘media exposure’, nor by empty ‘democratic freedoms’. It can only be achieved through collective ownership of the media, which must be part of genuine, democratic workers control of the economy.
Socialists must fight against fascism, which is a mortal threat to working-class people. And for that reason, we are in favour of defending ourselves – mobilising to prevent fascists from attacking our organisations. When we organise to prevent a fascist demonstration, we are not ‘attacking free speech.’ In fact, we are organising to defend the right and freedoms won by the labour movement over more than a century of struggle. Fascists demand the total repression of the working class, and the physical destruction of its organisations, such as trade unions. They aim to atomise the working class and defend the capitalist system that profits from our exploitation, using prejudices such as racism and sexism to achieve this. Fascists aren’t interested in debating, they only want to destroy anything and anyone that seeks to fight in the interests of the working class. We must do everything possible to prevent them from spreading this poison within society.
In order to build an anti-fascist movement, we do not need to debate fascists, which would be a waste of time. However, we do need to convince as many people as possible of the alternative to fascism. This can only be done with socialist ideas, which are the only ideas that can show us the way out of the capitalist system and its crises, which give rise to fascism in the first place. Therefore, we need to base a mass movement against fascism on political arguments that can win over broad layers of society, rather than simply appealing to emotions or personal experience.
An excellent example of the building of a political mass movement to fight fascism is the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists had scheduled a march through the East End of London, an area with a very large Jewish population. Five East London mayors appealed to the Home Secretary to ban the demonstration. He refused. That meant that the only way to stop the fascists was with a mass mobilisation, which is what happened. Led by an alliance of left-wing, working class organisations including the Communist Party, the Labour Party and the working-class Jewish community in the East End, thousands of workers came out to barricade the route of the march and prevent the fascists from marching. Meanwhile, the state rallied behind Mosley’s fascist organisation. The police rallied to defend the march and tried to clear the barricades. But this was not enough to prevent a comprehensive defeat and humiliation of the British Union of Fascists, who were forced to call off the march.
This is totally different to the tactics used by student unions, some student activist organisations, and identity politics groups, generically known as “no platforming”. Whilst the activists involved are well-meaning, there are nevertheless several reasons why this is not the best tactic to use to fight the Right. Firstly, no-platforming speakers has had very little appreciable impact in reducing prejudice, either on campus or in wider society. Secondly, those involved often make appeals to the state and its institutions to ban speakers – a tactic which can and has been turned against left-wing organisations. And finally, too often the tactic is based on small cliques of activists rather than the mass of students and workers.
Often, advocates of no-platforming lump fascists together with people who hold other unpleasant views. This is a mistake. We should make sure that we distinguish between the ideas of fascism and other prejudiced ideas. Not all racists, homophobes, sexists and the like are fascists. However these ideas must still be combated. We must oppose all the prejudices and discrimination which comes with class society.
One example of this, and one of the most high-profile instances of no-platforming in recent years, has been the no-platforming of transphobic radical feminists such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel. These feminists’ views demonstrate the divisive nature of identity politics, as they claim they cannot support transgender rights because ‘a conflict exists between transgenderism and sex-based women’s rights.’ Further to this, they share platforms with right wing media monstrosities like Piers Morgan in order to ‘denounce the trans lobby’. It is no wonder that left-wing groups on campus have called for their speaking engagements to be cancelled, especially given that the issue of trans rights has gained much more exposure in the last few years and is now seen as a priority by many groups on the Left.
However, no-platforming is not the best way to fight such prejudice. This is not a question of defending the abstract idea of ‘free speech’, but simply pointing out that no-platforming has not had any meaningful impact in terms of silencing prejudiced people. In fact, in these cases it only gave them more of an audience for their vitriol. Julie Bindel, for example, was able to publish several articles in the Telegraph bemoaning the loss of her free speech. Transphobia cannot be solved by preventing a transphobic speaker from coming to a university, it can only be solved by building a mass movement of working-class people to fight against oppression in all its forms. We should aim to bury such prejudice with our explanation of its origins and our perspective for eradicating oppression and prejudice of all kinds through the fight for socialism. This doesn’t mean that we can ‘debate’ oppression out of existence, but we can build on the successes of the past, and lay the basis for eradicating it entirely through the common struggle of workers regardless of sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
What applies to transphobes and other prejudiced people also applies to the far-right. We should not make the mistake of simply appealing to universities or state institutions to ban the far-right from speaking, because they have no real interest in opposing the views these people promote. For example, the Tories are currently trying to portray themselves as defenders of free speech, while at the same time promoting the Prevent legislation that actively tries to suppress free speech in schools and universities. This is something that university management is happy to collaborate in. Only a few weeks ago, students from the University of Reading were advised to be careful when reading an essay by left-wing academic Norman Gero, entitled ‘Our Morals: the Ethics of Revolution.’ This essay is a left-wing examination of the morality of a violent revolution, which had been flagged as ‘sensitive’ by Prevent legislation. Simultaneously, the government has recently warned universities that they could be fined for ‘no-platforming’ speakers. Taken together, the threat of fines for rejecting right-wing speakers and the Prevent legislation this means that, in effect, the government is working with universities to host right-wing speakers, while banning those who promote left-wing ideas. These institutions will not help us to fight the Right.
Any powers we give to the state or university authorities to close down a far-right meeting will be used to close down left-wing meetings. This rule has been proven throughout history, as was noted in 1938 when Trotsky, arguing against those social democrats who were appealing to the state to pass legislation to protect them from fascists, wrote that ‘Theory, as well as historic experience, testify that any restriction to democracy in bourgeois society, is eventually directed against the proletariat, just as taxes eventually fall on the shoulders of the proletariat. Consequently, any workers “leader” who arms the bourgeois state with special means to control public opinion in general, and the press in particular, is a traitor.’
We cannot trust the state, or the management of institutions such as universities, to defend free speech. Nor can we trust these institutions to prevent hate speech, when they are constantly encouraging or are complicit in attacks on left-wingers and the working class.
Although the abstract and idealised version of ‘freedom of speech’ does not exist, the democratic rights that we do have were won by workers over decades of struggle. The right to organise, strike, vote, and to have some measure of free speech and press must be defended against groups who would seek to take them away. However, this is a concrete question. We fight for the rights of workers to organise freely, to publish our own websites and newspapers, etc, not for the rights of a Nazi to speak in a university. To preserve the democratic freedoms that we have won, we should not seek to put more power in the hands of the state or establishment institutions. Instead we should rely on our own strength.
We also reject the approach to political organising taken by some of the activist groups that advocate no-platforming. Often this consists of small groups of liberals and left-wingers planning small-scale actions and disruptions in secret back-room discussions and WhatsApp groups. This is often not linked to providing a serious political explanation for their actions to a wider layer of people, or even reaching out for support in an organised way. As a result, these small-scale disruptions are ineffective at best, and at worst are a gift to the right-wing, who use them to portray the Left as stifling debate through conspiratorial methods. All that these methods show is a lack of confidence in our ability to convince large numbers of people that our ideas are correct. We should be doing the opposite – socialists who believe in changing society can only do so by winning over masses of people to our ideas.
For example, at King’s College London recently, a group of students alongside members of London Antifa disrupted a talk by Carl Benjamin, otherwise known by his online persona ‘Sargon of Akkad’. With his links to others on the far-right, and the hate speech he promotes online, this was clearly somebody whose political views are a threat to working-class people. However, instead of organising a mass picket or demonstration, with speakers who could put forward arguments to expose these views, a small group of activists simply stormed the lecture hall where the event was taking place, setting off smoke bombs and getting into a physical scuffle with some members of the audience. Incredibly, they crossed a UCU picket line in order to do this, without even attempting to reach out to the striking lecturers’ union for support!
While they cut the talk short, the way the action was organised allowed the media and organisers of the event to portray them as ‘an aggressive group of antifa thugs,’ and to sweep the real issue of far-right figures inciting hatred under the rug. Not only that, but as a result of this action, senior management at KCL has now clamped down on protest of any kind at the university, dampening the spirit of many students. Had the action involved hundreds of students and workers, management wouldn’t have felt able to take this kind of action. Or if they had, it would only have served to energise the fight against the far-right instead of demoralising it.
This example highlights the main point. Whether our aim is to counter fascists in defence of our democratic rights, or to rally against those who promote oppression and prejudice, we must base ourselves on a mass movement involving as many people as possible. The way to build a movement like this is by offering a bold alternative to the status quo. When the system is in crisis, as it is today, people will look for explanations and alternatives. Without a clear socialist alternative, people will turn to right-wing ideas answers. It’s up to us to offer the alternative to that. A mass movement with clear socialist ideas is the only way to fight the Right.
by Laurie O’Connel, Cambridge Marxists