“For our demands most moderate are: we only want the earth” (James Connolly 1907)

How to be an extremist

Michael Gove and co seek to redefine ‘extremism’. Paul Demarty suggests that we should wear the label with pride

Samuel Johnson famously quipped, in 1775, that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

He had in mind William Pitt the Elder - a great Whig statesman, who made a habit of high-blown patriotic rhetoric unmatched, in the eyes of the incorrigible Tory, Johnson, by prudent policy. Yet many indeed have since attempted to conceal ignominy by draping themselves in the flag.

Perhaps in our time, however, there is a new redoubt for the truly debased politician. Perhaps today the last refuge of the scoundrel is ‘anti-extremism’. So it seems in the case of Michael Gove, secretary of state for communities and one of the cannier remaining figures on the government front bench, who is looking to pilot a revamp of the government’s working definition of ‘extremism’ in various municipalities around the country, with the aim of excluding such ‘extremists’ from public life.

That new definition, which leaked back in November, forbids as ‘extremist’ “the promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values”. This would be overbroad and chilling enough as such, were Gove and co not explicit about the sorts of organisations they intended to catch, which included the Muslim Council of Britain - whose ‘mainstream’ credentials have barely been questioned outside the far right before now - and Palestine Action, which conducts direct-action stunts to expose the crimes of Israel.

But as written it would also include Lee Anderson, late of Gove’s parish; the various Catholic neo-integralists, with whom Tory ministers cheerfully pal around at National Conservatism conferences; and, needless to say, the whole radical left, from open revolutionaries like ourselves to those anti-racist activists who agree with us that the police should be abolished. Would Gove himself be safe? His old idea to send ex-squaddies into schools as role models to alienated young men has a little bit of an Andrew Tate vibe; and we recall, for some reason, Kenneth Clarke caught on tape during the 2016 Tory leadership contest: “I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once.”

The legality of this definition is highly questionable, and indeed the last time one was proposed, in 2016, it was shelved, when it became clear that judicial blessing was not to be forthcoming. But that is all to the good: there is nothing a Tory government likes more, in an election year, than a kabuki fight with ‘leftie’ judges … Yet, even as such, it is more or less the ‘common sense’ definition in the Westminster bubble, arrived at in stages. Any oppositional movement, from Brexitism (“closet racists and swivel-eyed loons”, as David Cameron put it) to Palestine solidarity (“vile anti-Semites”, as too many worthies to mention are currently putting it), is in danger of being put beyond the pale by an increasingly philistine and intolerant political class.


Whence this endless ratchet? After all, it seems worthwhile to point out that, on its own terms, the post-9/11 ‘anti-extremism’ policy of successive governments has been a total failure. The first version was rolled out in 2003, only to be followed by the 2005 London bombings that killed scores of people. Inevitably it was beefed up again and again, gaining its current form - the preposterous ‘Prevent’ strategy, in 2011. None of that did a damn thing to prevent a series of low-tech terrorist incidents in the 2010s, mostly associated with Islamic State. Fiery Islamist sects have followed each other into notoriety and oblivion - we think particularly of Anjem Choudary’s delightful al-Muhajiroun, but others could be cited, and as a whole they are not going away.

Not that we should forget the far right here, also notionally targeted by all this legislation, who have been on a continuous long march into the political mainstream. The British National Party was succeeded by the (more violent) English Defence League; both were succeeded in turn by more vigorously racist outfits like Britain First and National Action, the latter being eventually banned. More ‘mainstream’ parties of the right, like the UK Independence Party, began to adopt the rhetoric of continental defenders of European Christian civilisation against the swarthy Arab hordes threatening its borders. Lee Anderson may have jumped ship, but this sort of racist raving is now utterly pervasive in the Tory Party. Along the way, two MPs have been assassinated - one by an Islamist, one by a far-rightist.

It is difficult to overstate the inadequacy of ‘anti-extremism’ to the task of applying any meaningful brake on the advance of ‘extremism’. The money might have been better spent on giving everyone in hard-up rustbelt towns a fiver each. The policy has instead had the effect merely of recruiting reluctant teachers and other relevant public servants into the role of Stasi snitches, producing occasional embarrassments like the reporting of two young brothers under Prevent rubrics because they had been given toy guns as a gift.

The result of these outrages is, precisely, to confirm the accounts of the ‘extremists’. A militant Islamist has endless proof, by way of this sort of absurd harassment, that the liberalism of western societies is a sham, designed to conceal their main purpose of suppressing Islam. A far-right ideologue can point to such outrages as proof that society is run by ‘cultural Marxists’ and whatever else. And, needless to say, it provides endless opportunities for papers like this one to argue that only socialist revolution, in the end, can get us to true political democracy …

That is on the assumption, of course, that the actual purpose of such state policy is to fight the specific ideologies supposedly at issue, and thereby to defend democracy. But there is an alternative interpretation: what is being defended is not democracy, but the class interests of those who really make the decisions in the last instance, and it is in the end good enough to defend it by direct repression, so long as that repression can be justified in the minds of enough people. Hence the importance of misrepresenting the question as one of ‘democracy’ versus ‘extremism’, and furthermore of identifying ‘extremism’ with the agency of certain rivals (Russia, China, even Iran - in vain do leftists point out that it is the west’s allies, like Saudi Arabia, who most aggressively promote Islamism around the world).

If such is the reality, it does not really matter much whether the supposed ‘extremists’ are kept at bay. Some indications of the ‘threat’ are actually useful, inasmuch as they justify the ratchet. It is always necessary to do more, precisely because nothing you do actually works.


The differences between the mainstream parties on this question are essentially trivial. The policy was initiated originally by Tony Blair, and handed seamlessly over to the Tories. No doubt the present hue and cry is a desperate attempt to get some ground back in the forthcoming general election (and delegitimise the Palestine movement while they are at it); it is quite impossible for a Labour leader as ‘responsible’ as Sir Keir Starmer to object to further measures against ‘extremism’ on any but the most bad-faith, ticky-tacky grounds. The liberal media harrumph about the legalities. It is a free hit for the Tories, and who knows? It could even work, by reducing the number of defectors following Lee Anderson to Reform, or to shore up the Tory vote in certain swing seats.

This consensus leaves those of us fighting back potentially in an awkward position. The response of, say, the Socialist Workers Party is simultaneously to ridicule the accusation of extremism and to defend the right to protest to the point of demanding that protestors defy bans and ‘take to the streets in rage’. Yet there is a contradiction here: ‘We’re not extremists, and to prove it, we’ll defy the law!’

Indeed, perhaps we are extremists, after all: radicalism is always ‘extremism’ to the defender of the status quo, and we ought not to fear being viewed as such. As that bastion of the American right, Barry Goldwater, notoriously put it, “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.” Insofar as extremism definitions like Gove’s play into actual legal suppression we should, of course, seek to wriggle out from under it. Yet our fundamental task is revolution, which means delegitimising the status quo, as openly as we are able. We do not reject the charge of ‘extremism’ as much as we reject the prerogative of the state to sort political outlooks into the categories of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’.

Our extremism is democratic extremism. And we favour maximal freedom of speech and association, in part because repression does not work: far better to have Islamist or neo-fascist reactionaries stating their cases openly than to have the dead hands of the bureaucratic state and corporate media deciding on everyone’s behalf that they may not speak.

We do not seek to usurp that power, but to abolish it.