Did free speech allow the Nazis to come to power?
Eddie Ford criticises the SWP for misunderstanding history and insisting upon the ‘principle’ of no-platforming
Reading Socialist Worker these days is a rather depressing experience, and it appears to be getting worse and worse - even if it still has some way to go before it gets as excruciatingly boring as the life-sapping The Socialist. Instead of a publication that is trying to constructively engage with the actually existing left and critically examine its own traditions and practices, we enter into an ideological alternative universe: a dreary, philistine world, where all that matters is the next demonstration or strike, where spontaneity is everything and programme is nothing. Indeed, where history itself is junk.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to the linked questions of fascism, free speech and ‘no-platforming’. This sees the Socialist Workers Party totally abandon the Marxist approach, embracing a form of hysterical ‘anti-fascism’ that hopes to act as the extreme leftwing conscience of the bourgeoisie - moralistically pushing it to take this or that action against the scourge of fascism. As regular readers of the Weekly Worker will know, for the SWP it is an article of faith - a ‘principle’, apparently - that fascists or “Nazis” (seemingly identical, interchangeable, terms for the comrades) must be denied a platform. A sacred shibboleth - unlike, what we saw in Respect when the SWP headed it - abortion rights, secularism, open borders, etc: these can be sidelined in the service of getting votes.
Anyhow, this ‘principle’ is hammered home again in a recent editorial article prompted by Marine Le Pen’s February 5 appearance at the elite Oxford Union and the English Defence League march in Dudley two days later (‘Should fascists be allowed freedom of speech?’, January 27). We are ritually told that fascists “should never be allowed to speak publicly or organise openly”, as whenever “Nazis” are “allowed the space to organise” they will build a “hard core of street-fighting thugs” that will carry out “murderous attacks” on ethnic minorities and the left as part of an attempt to physically “take control of the streets”. The most obvious example being, we are informed, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party in the early 1930s that attacked Jewish people on the streets and smashed up meetings of trade unions, social democrats and communists. In other words, freedom of speech leads directly to the gas chambers. That is because “Nazis” are “not like other political forces” or “even other racist parties”, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party - rather they are an utterly alien menace, a deadly virus that if left unexpunged will infect the entire body politic.
Of course, the SWP’s basic premise is laughable nonsense - but we shall return to that a bit later. However, what is most noteworthy about the above article - for all its thumping SWP orthodoxy - is that it includes a very brief discussion about the implosion of the British National Party, now thankfully facing electoral extinction. We are reminded of Nick Griffin’s 2009 appearance on the BBC’s Question time show and the fact that Unite Against Fascism and other campaigners “fought hard to keep him off the air”. Yet the debate went ahead anyway and Griffin was “humiliated on the programme, as his racist and bigoted arguments were torn apart”.
Here is the first time ever, at least to the knowledge of this writer, that Griffin’s disastrous Question time performance has ever been mentioned by Socialist Worker - but what it says clearly contradicts, or at the very least throws into serious doubt, the SWP’s dogmatic interpretation of the no-platform tactic (an approach that is shared to one degree or another by large sections of the left, alas). Previously, the comrades had insisted that giving the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to Griffin would have all manner of dreadful consequences: setting off a chain reaction of increased attacks on mosques, physical assaults on members of the left, and so on. Now we discover that, far from having stormtroopers on every street corner and swastikas flying from every building, Griffin’s views were “torn apart” - ripped to shreds in front of millions of people. As a result, he lost all credibility, and eventually his job as BNP leader - he was finally kicked out of the organisation just to make his downfall complete. Obviously, something does not compute about the SWP’s analysis.
Naturally, Socialist Worker goes through a few contortions in a desperate effort to retain the old ideological line - making out that a “record” 3,000 people “reportedly” enquired about BNP membership that night and droning on about how the explanation for the organisation’s demise is due to UAF “campaigning to smash it” - not because it was “defeated in debate”. Truly pathetic stuff. You need only have looked at the BNP’s website after the Question time show ended, as Weekly Worker journalists did, to see the flood of angry comments from supporters/members who had found Griffin’s performance a complete embarrassment: their “overawed” leader had been fucking useless, when he should have been “fully prepared” for questions relating to his past - ie, his description of the Nazi genocide as a “holo-hoax” or defence of the “totally non-violent” David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader.
What our SWP comrades still refuse to recognise is that it was not Weyman Bennett or UAF shouting themselves hoarse outside the Television Centre that led to the BNP’s demise, but rather Griffin’s co-panellists - especially Bonnie Greer - in what was clearly a carefully stage-managed set-up. At the end of the day, Nick Griffin was more discredited by the BBC bosses’ decision to ‘platform’ him than UAF’s frantic no-platforming.
All of which brings us to the broader political point about freedom of speech and why communists fight for it so intransigently. Needless to say, communists do not bend over backwards to help reactionary organisations, fascist or otherwise, spread their views - we aim at all times to politically defeat all backward ideas. We most certainly do not have a relaxed, ‘live and let live’ attitude or suffer from libertarian complacency. Fascism is distinguished from other reactionary streams of thought, after all, by being the last line of defence - a desperate rearguard action - of class society in times of severe crisis, and the chilling brutality which it deploys is not an accidental or contingent phenomenon, but a necessary function of its counterrevolutionary social role: to crush the working class and its organisations.
From this understanding it follows that communists are the most vocal and steadfast opponents of fascism. And one of our most powerful weapons is precisely exposure, debate, criticism: ie, free speech. With that in mind, communists recognise that the bourgeoisie is not a champion of free speech. Indeed it is a thoroughly anti-democratic class. The SWP/UAF, on the other hand, has historically concentrated on getting ‘respectable’, mainstream opinion on its side - whether forlornly or not - and at its very worst has made direct, and rather revolting, appeals to the bourgeois establishment’s ‘anti-fascist’ credentials. This has involved UAF openly calling for the state to ban EDL marches or imprison far-right figures for ‘hate speech’. This is peddling dangerous illusions in the state, which is never neutral; in fact, it is objectively pro-capitalist, which ultimately means at a certain juncture it can be pro-fascist.
In an article on the anti-Le Pen protests outside the Oxford Union, The Guardian quotes an illuminating remark from Weyman Bennett (February 5). Fulminating at the decision to invite the “notorious Islamophobe”, Marine Le Pen, he mentions how her father, Jean-Marie, “once called the holocaust a ‘detail of history’” - which proves that fascists “should never be allowed a platform”, as one thing leads inexorably to the other.
Comrade Bennett’s throwaway comment offers a revealing insight into the SWP mentality, which essentially is to build a popular-frontist coalition against fascism - nothing must be done to alienate ‘progressive’ bourgeois opinion. But what the SWP is really doing is handing over the right to decide which political discourses are acceptable or not to the bourgeois state and its courts, police, armies, etc. By doing so you are granting these powers to a state apparatus which in times of extreme crisis will itself turn to fascism. It is, after all, what the ruling class will ultimately deploy against us when we threaten its rule. Therefore, we must demand of the bourgeois state that all opinions must be permissible - open to debate and contention.
The main political lesson of Marxism is that this state, at any and all times, is the main enemy - not “the Nazis”. Nick Griffin or any other far-right crackpot should be perfectly free - as far as the police and state are concerned - to expound their garbage. Laws against ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalisation’ are just as much a threat to communists as they are to fascists or political Islam - far more so, in fact, as we have a fundamental class hostility to the bourgeois state.
Yes, we in the CPGB are perfectly prepared to use the no-platform tactic under certain circumstances, but we oppose the traditional far-left approach, which boils everything down to often pointless displays of physical force or, in the shape of UAF, a liberalistic, ‘something must be done’ howl. But it is a profound mistake to elevate no-platform into a principle.
Furthermore, our insistence on freedom of speech is programmatically linked to our overall conception of socialism - which is rooted in the entire Marxist world view. Plainly, to reject freedom of speech is to reject Marxism itself and hence the entire project of universal human emancipation - it is hardly an optional add-on. Why? Socialism, the first stage of communism, can only be the act of self-liberation for the great majority, by the great majority - not merely the winning of a parliamentary majority. Therefore it follows that the working class cannot be treated as little children incapable of handling awkward and complicated questions - children who need to be protected from bad ideas.
The Socialist Worker article claims that Le Pen’s presence at Oxford can help “revitalise” the forces of Nazis in the UK: the “fascists will take any freedom they are offered and use it to rampaging [sic] through the streets, as the EDL did in its heyday” (whenever that was). Of course, the FN came first in last year’s European elections in France on 24.86% of the vote and is expected to do well in this year’s local/regional elections.
True, a Le Pen government would be highly unpleasant, and the left should make every effort to mobilise against it - overthrow the bastards if possible. But the idea that it would be a “Nazi” government is patently ridiculous. No doubt in the past forces within the FN talked about the ‘politics of the street’ and physically confronting the left - and some diehards probably still do after a few bottles of wine. But that is clearly not the strategy of the current FN leadership, nor would it define or characterise any future Len Pen-led government; the left should deal with what is, not indulge in fantasy politics.
Interestingly enough, while Ukip does not want anything to do with the FN, the two are actually similar organisations: xenophobic, chauvinist, rightwing. Yet curiously the SWP says Ukip is not fascist - though apparently it is “racist”, because it calls for a tighter, points-based, immigration system. In fact that makes it little different, when all is said and done, from the Tories, Liberal Democrats, Labour or, for that matter, George Galloway and No2EU (rest in peace). Are they all “racist” too? Additionally, could the SWP central committee please explain what the fundamental difference is between the FN and Ukip?
Whilst we wait for these and other answers, it is obvious that the SWP leadership completely misunderstands the history of the 1920s and 1930s, or at least pretends to. As Clara Zetkin famously said, quite correctly, fascism was a punishment inflicted on the working class for not having taken power. But we are not in the 1920s or 1930s. As things stand now, there is no immediate threat to the ruling order from the working class - accordingly, there is absolutely no possibility of the bourgeoisie ceding political power to fascist thugs.