Banning bad ideas

David Irving's conviction for holocaust denial and three-year sentence in an Austrian prison is not good news for communists and democrats, say Tina Becker and Eddie Ford. It is in our own self-interest to oppose anti-free speech laws and proscriptions, as sooner or later they will be used against us

It took the Austrian court just seven hours to convict David Irving. By pleading guilty, he not only sped up the process, but was aiming for a reduced sentence, which could otherwise have been up to 10 years. However, the judge clearly did not buy Irving's 'transformation' and his insistence that he had "changed my mind" about the holocaust: "I am absolutely without doubt that the holocaust took place. I deny that I'm a holocaust-denier," Irving said in fluent German, but to no avail.

Some think that it was not particularly clever of Irving to go back to a country which had an outstanding arrest warrant in his name. But there is the suspicion that Irving deliberately took the chance of standing trial in order to get more publicity. After he unsuccessfully sued American academic Deborah Lipstadt in 2000 over claims that he was a holocaust-denier, he went bankrupt and had to sell his Mayfair house.

And Irving had already made the most of the publicity while awaiting trial - on the way into court he displayed his own books which he had discovered in the prison library. Clearly, the proceedings will have made him much more well known and will have led to a surge of interest in his views and published works. He has already announced that he will use the time in prison to write another book, Irving's war.

The Times is clearly wrong when it comments: "The verdict will end for good the career of a man banned from a dozen countries from Canada to South Africa for belittling the murder of the Jews and glorifying Hitler" (February 21). His career might not even have reached its zenith yet. And by locking him up for two speeches he gave over 17 years ago, he is bound to attract a lot more support and interest from alienated, angry and disorientated sections of the population worldwide.

Lipstadt herself said she was "dismayed" at the sentence: "I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship ... The way to fight holocaust-deniers is with history and with truth" (BBC news online, February 21).

Austria has the harshest laws worldwide when it comes to the "public denial, belittling or justification of National Socialist crimes" - no doubt because Austria in 1938 was all too keen to join Nazi Germany through the Anschluss.

The original law stems from 1946 and was, like the German Grundgesetz of 1949, drawn up with the allied forces 'overseeing' the process. It is actually enshrined in the Austrian constitution, which means it can only be changed by a two thirds-majority in parliament. The original law was aimed against Wiederbetätigung - ie, it is supposed to prevent ex-Nazis from re-engaging with "National Socialist organisations".

The paragraph under which Irving was charged, however, was only created in 1992. This specifically prohibits the questioning of the holocaust, even if the person voicing such an opinion has no intention of Wiederbetätigung: ie, has no intention of putting their words into any kind of practice.

No doubt, the sharpening of the law was directed against the then dramatic resurgence of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ). With the populist Jörg Haider taking over the helm of the organisation in 1986, he successfully remade it into a 'modern', clearly rightwing party by either chucking out or repelling the liberal wing - a process which was finished in 1993 and which led to the FPÖ coming second in the 1999 elections with 26.9% of the vote.

Needless to say, the rise and subsequent downfall of the FPÖ had very little to do with the existence of this or similar laws - and much more with its Realpolitik as part of the national government and extensive power struggles within the party, which culminated in a split, the expulsion of Haider and the collapse of its vote to a mere 6.3% in the 2004 European elections. The Austrian government still contains three members of the FPÖ successor party, the Haider-led Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ) - but both the FPÖ and the BZÖ have not only lost a good deal of support, but also moderated their extremely rightwing rhetoric.

Irving's trial has led to a wide-ranging debate over the continued existence of the law - with many liberal forces demanding it should be abolished or at least dramatically reformed (see Der Standard February 10). So David Irving might well be right in saying "this law won't exist any more in 12 months" (BBC news online, February 21).

Holocaust-denial laws should be steadfastly opposed by all communists and democrats, just like all other attacks on free speech. Clearly, they have not been designed to prevent fascism. On the contrary, their existence in fact "belittles and denies" the role played by capital and the ruling classes in Germany, Austria and Italy in bringing fascism about. As if fascism - the counterrevolutionary dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - could be resurrected by a few rightwing nutters. Such laws are clearly designed to extend state control over society as a whole.

Free speech for Nazis?

Communists are militant defenders of free speech and democratic rights. Therefore, as consistent democrats, we oppose all forms of censorship - and state bans or prohibitions on 'extremist' organisations. We do so not out of libertarianism or a sense of fair play and decency, but because communists oppose all measures which give the authorities the right to decide what can and cannot be said, or to adjudicate as to what is 'correct' or not. More concretely, it is in our self-interest to oppose anti-free speech laws and proscriptions - as they will inevitably be turned against us, sooner rather than later.

This should be an elementary proposition for any organisation calling itself Marxist or communist. As argued in the Communist manifesto, in order "to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class" we must "win the battle of democracy" (K Marx, F Engels The communist manifesto London 2002, p243). In other words, communists struggle to extend and broaden democracy to every sphere of life - knowing that the working class can only become a universal ruling class if it masters politics and scientific discourse in general, which in turn requires access to the most advanced theory available. Without the free, full and open clash of different and contending ideas, such theory - so necessary for our self-liberation - can never truly emerge. In terms of classical Marxism, this is very much the orthodox position.

However, for all that, the left's record on free speech has been pretty atrocious. Indeed, socialists have sometimes been first in the queue when it comes to calling for censorship or greater state powers to curb democratic rights. Rather than an emancipatory socialism from below, we have instead a bureaucratic or elitist socialism - where the role of the masses is to obey unquestioningly this or that sect leader, and uncritically support every new twist and turn of 'the party' (or the state bureaucracy).

One of the worst offenders in this respect has been the Socialist Workers Party - and its opportunist crimes have been exhaustively catalogued in the Weekly Worker. Although as yet there has been no public comment on the case by either the SWP, its German section, Linksruck, or its Austrian section, Linkswende, no doubt the comrades will soon be rejoicing at Irving's sentence.

Back in 1999, in its 'What we think' column, Socialist Worker raged: "There is only one reason for denial of the Nazi holocaust. It is to make it possible again ... Holocaust-deniers should be confronted whenever they raise their heads, and Irving's books should be banned from every public, college and school library" (our emphasis, January 22 1999).

Similarly, only a few months later Socialist Worker was bitterly complaining about the fact that "the Nazis are to be allowed to pollute our screens with a free TV broadcast", and how the editor of The Guardian "gave letter space to the British National Party's 'publicity officer', Michael Newland" - where he "was allowed to state unchallenged that the BNP condemned the [Soho nail] bombs" (May 15 1999). In other words, the fringe SWP does not believe that fringe groups should be allowed "letter space" in The Guardian or given access to the TV screens. For the SWP, it seems, some ideas are just beyond the pale.

The SWP has not explicitly called for the state to introduce Austrian and German-style anti-free-speech laws (meaning that only duly accredited students would be allowed to read Hitler's Mein Kampf, and 'holocaust denial' would be a criminal offence). But its open support for the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and uncritical reporting of muslim calls for the banning of insults to islam lead us to conclude that this will not be long in coming.

Allowing the state such powers is extremely dangerous - and it is a disgrace when sections of the left actually demand that the state adopt and implement anti-democratic measures. As the Weekly Worker has patiently explained, and will continue to do so, such a censorial approach is underpinned by the assumption that the working class consists of ignorant and potentially wayward sheep, or little children, who must be shielded from corrupting and confusing 'bad ideas' - and therefore need the all-wise SWP central committee priesthood to be on permanent guard duty in order to tell them what they should and should not be thinking at any one time.

Clearly Irving's views are despicable and revolting - his devious but well researched writings are motivated by a combination of undeclared anti-semitism and Hitlerite apologetics. Even so, it would be a fundamental mistake to righteously dismiss his extensive works as mere reactionary trash. For instance, in his readable Churchill's war: struggle for power, Irving emphasises how Churchill's prime motivation during World War II, apart from self-aggrandisement, was the defence and preservation of the holy British empire. Certainly not the pursuance of a noble 'anti-fascist' crusade - least of all a humanitarian concern for the plight of European Jews.

For Churchill it was surely the case that the holocaust was indeed a "mere detail" of the war. The horrors of Auschwitz and the other death camps were convenient add-on gloss, when it came to the production of post-World War II anti-Nazi propaganda by the ruling class and their servants.

Looked at from this angle, there are many aspects of Churchill's war that the left could concur with. It may even be possible that Irving's book, if studied in a critical and intelligent manner, could act as a useful antidote to the anti-Nazi/World War II propaganda of the democratic bourgeoisie. But for the patriarchs who run the SWP such views are heresy. Irving's books should be banned and that is that.

Clearly then, it is not sympathy for Irving's views that leads us to stand against such bans and oppose his jailing under holocaust-denial legislation. Rather it is the knowledge that, in the eyes of the ruling class, the 'bad ideas' that are most feared are those of working class power and socialism.