A meeting of two halves

We are a campaign for free speech: good. But we are not a Labour campaign: bad. Derek James of Labour Party Marxists reports

The Labour Campaign for Free Speech all-members online meeting had three important items on its agenda when it met on Wednesday June 30. The campaign’s constitution was passed nem com, but the two other issues – namely, whether the campaign stood for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication, or adopted a ‘free speech, but’ position; and the LCfFS steering committee’s call not to back the Labour candidate in the Batley and Spen by-election - took up the bulk of the meeting and engendered an energetic debate.

The nature of the campaign was discussed in a consideration of two amendments to the campaign’s charter, moved by Tony Greenstein and Kevin Bean respectively. Whilst comrade Bean wanted a campaign that stood for “unrestricted freedom of speech and publication”, comrade Greenstein’s amendments drew on the ‘no-platforming’ position that is now quite dominant on the left and which other comrades also advanced during the meeting. He argued that free speech “does not include the right of fascists and organised racists to hold meetings or marches whose sole purpose is to demonise and advocate violence against racial or other minorities ... or the right to incite racial hatred or advocate the harm of others because of their protected characteristics (race, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc).” Comrade Greenstein based much of his case on what he understood of the ‘beat the fascists’ traditions of ‘official communism’ in the late 1920s and 1930s, as well as the popular frontist Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s. Amazingly, he claimed that such tactics had defeated the far right in the past and could do so again. As if Hitler was stopped by the street battles fought by communist militants in Germany. As if the National Front vote had not been incorporated electorally by Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in 1979.

Fascism is not about tiny groups of crazies hatching into mass proportions and taking over state power because the left did not kill them ‘in the egg’. No, fascism, if it is to be a serious threat, gets the backing of key sections of the capitalist class and the capitalist state itself. That is what happened in Germany in 1933 - but did not happen in Britain. Why? Because the working class here was never - well, in the 20th century - in a serious position to take power. If it were, then our main enemy would certainly not be deranged organisations such as the NF, BNP, Britain First, For Britain, English Democrats, etc. No, it would be the capitalist class and the capitalist state. Prioritising, fetishising, fascism and fascists is a diversion. Defend ourselves? Yes. Defend migrants and minorities? Yes. But always have clear strategic aims.

Marxist tradition

In putting his amendment, comrade Bean drew on the Marxist tradition, which opposes all state and religious censorship and restriction. He stressed that, for Marx, unrestricted free speech was central to the political project of the self-emancipation of the working class, because revolutionary politics requires the fullest democracy and freedom to express ideas and disagreements: the struggle against capitalism is necessarily predicated on winning the battle of ideas within the working class movement itself.

These general arguments should be widely accepted within left politics, but, for comrade Bean, problems arose with the ‘free speech plus restrictions’ approach: who defines the categories of such restrictions? Are they based on the ‘protected characteristics’ of current law, as defined by the state and its official multiculturalism? Our experience of the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt should alert us to the ways that such categorisations of ‘offence’ and ‘hate’ can be used to silence political opposition to the current status quo. Furthermore, in arguing for restrictions on freedom of expression, are we not supporting the right of the state to police political and social debate, or giving institutions the power to ‘cancel’ controversial ideas in the interests of preventing offence and distress to groups with ‘protected characteristics’? In this way we actually help to provide a justification for the very laws and restrictions that will be directed against us.

Comrade Bean suggested that the most popular iteration of the ‘free speech, but …’ argument concerns racism and fascism - and this indeed proved to be the case during the meeting. He argued that ‘no platforming’ racists and fascists has been elevated almost into a principle by many on the left, with the result that, for some, this form of ‘no platforming’ has, in effect, become a call for state bans or other official action. Many of the arguments for ‘no platforming’ are based either on an inaccurate understanding of the history of pre-1939 Europe or on the very different experience of post-war anti-fascist or anti-racist movements. Even during the periods of virtual civil war in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Nazis and fascists attempted to smash the organised working class, the labour movement did not simply defend itself physically, but also went on the political offensive to undermine support for the right by countering their ideas and fighting for socialism and working class power. Physical force, whether defensive or offensive, is perfectly legitimate as a tactic, but so too is debate and political persuasion that offers an alternative to the dead end of fascism.

Comrade Bean concluded by arguing that bigoted and reactionary viewpoints must be fought in the open, not via bureaucratic cancelling, safeguarding or safe spaces policies, or through the revolutionary posturing of ‘no platform for racists and fascists’. We have confidence in our project to win the working class and the oppressed to a movement to overthrow capitalism. Moreover, building such a working class movement ultimately rests on a serious battle of ideas, and so the struggle for revolutionary politics is inextricably linked to the demand for unrestricted freedom of expression, publication and organisation.

These themes were rehearsed by other speakers in their various ways during the debate. Graham Bash was typical of many comrades supporting Tony Greenstein, who made their case by drawing on the historical experience of anti-fascism: comrade Bash rejected arguments about a battle of ideas and stressed that “Mosley’s ideas were beaten through physical confrontation on the streets, not through debate”. In a similar vein Ian Donovan grounded his arguments, as did others, in the growth of the far right internationally in recent years: the real danger they posed to the working class made it “obligatory to smash up fascist meetings in defence of our free speech”. Another comrade took up the idea of a clear and present danger by suggesting that the question of fascism was not simply historical, but was now serious and immediate. He claimed that “the purpose of fascism is to exterminate the left” and that it is “being made ready for use by the ruling class. The events in the White House and Ukraine show that this is a concrete issue, not an abstraction.”

Those comrades who supported the ‘unrestricted freedom of expression’ amendment focused on the basic principles of Marxism and the traditions of the labour movement. Bob Davies argued that support for free speech is primary. If we argue for restrictions, who decides and where do we draw the line? Tina Werkmann took up this point and broadened it to consider how Marxists believed in the potential of people to change their minds. “We have much better arguments,” she said, and “we can convince those who might support the right that socialism is a solution”. John Bridge agreed, emphasising the point that accusations of ‘liberalism’ against the ‘unrestricted’ formulation were somewhat misplaced. The phrase is taken from the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party adopted at its 2nd Congress in 1903. Were Lenin, Plekhanov and Trotsky mere bleeding heart liberals? Hardly. The comrade also cited the case of Ricky Tomlinson, one of the Shrewsbury pickets, who had previously been a National Front member, but had been won over to the left. “I suppose someone had an argument with him, rather than simply introducing him to the pavement,” he quipped.

When the amendments were put to the vote, the proposal to incorporate unrestricted freedom of expression was passed by 28 votes to 18 with seven abstentions. This means that the LCfFS now has a clear, coherent position which can provide a solid basis for its campaigning activity in support of free speech, within both the labour movement and society more generally.

Labour vote?

Whilst the bulk of the meeting was taken up with this important issue, there was also a brief discussion on the following emergency motion, submitted by Labour Party Marxists, which opposed the position the LCfFS steering committee took on the Batley and Spen by-election1:

This membership meeting of the Labour Campaign for Free Speech calls for a Labour vote in the July 1 Batley and Spen by-election. We disassociate ourselves from the politically disorientated June 22 steering committee statement, refusing to support a Labour vote.

In the entire history of the Labour Party there have been very few candidates, let alone MPs, who have held to genuinely principled socialist positions. The vast bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party have been pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist. There has been a long and sorry history of pro-Zionism too.

Kim Leadbeater is no different in this respect. The reason the LCfFS supports a Labour vote in Batley and Spen has nothing to do with her personal qualities or how she was selected.

Our electoral tactics flow from our goal of winning the battle for free speech in the Labour Party. We are a Labour Party-focused campaign. Of course, supporting a non-Labour vote cannot be ruled out in principle. But there is no compelling reason to opt for another candidate in Batley and Spen.2

In moving the motion, Andrew Kirkland argued that the steering committee had gone half way towards supporting another party. What did this refusal to support the Labour candidate mean? Was it a call not to vote Labour in Batley and Spen, and instead plump for another candidate, such as George Galloway of the Workers’ Party of Britain? Or was it merely calling for an abstention? He believed that the issue of free speech had dominated the party over the last year, and we must extend the fight to other issues, and call for greater democracy in the party. We must avoid scoring own goals.

It is nothing new that by-election candidates have dreadful politics. The Parliamentary Labour Party is loaded with pro-imperialist, pro-capitalist and pro-Zionist MPs. Yes, Leadbeater was imposed from above, but we do not call for a Tory victory in elections. There is, after all, no possibility of George Galloway winning. Nor the Alliance for Green Socialism’s Mike Davis. No less to the point, neither of these candidates stand on a programme that points in the direction of the mass Communist Party that objective circumstances cry out for.

After a limited discussion because of time constraints, the motion was defeated by 24 votes to 16, with four abstentions (including Jackie Walker and Tina Werkmann). Lots of those attending did not vote.

So, LCfFS has adopted a clear position on free speech: it is a campaign for free speech … without the self-defeating ifs and buts. That is good. But is it a Labour campaign? Moralism, knee-jerk reaction and the sterile politics of purity won out over a clear strategic orientation. That is bad. A Labour Campaign for Free Speech that does not put Labour at the core of its work is a completely pointless exercise.

  1. ‘Blue and red walls crack’ Weekly Worker June 24: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1353/blue-and-red-walls-crack.↩︎

  2. labourfreespeech.org.uk/statement-on-batley-spen-by-election.↩︎