Oxford Union and 'free speech'

The decision by the Oxford Union debating society to give a platform to BNP leader Nick Griffin and holocaust denier David Irving provoked national controversy. James Turley digs through it all and argues for a particular application of the 'no platform' tactic

It was probably not the most edifying moment in the Oxford Union's history. The elite debating society (not, as the name implies, the student union) was excoriated by almost every public figure in Britain this last week for its decision to invite the British National Party's long-time leader Nick Griffin, along with infamous holocaust revisionist David Irving, to a debate on free speech - only the flightier liberal free speech advocates, and, of course, various dubious far-right luminaries, defended the decision.

In the event, the debate passed off successfully. A crew of 500-odd anti-fascists gathered outside and, using some clever tactics, managed to get 30 or so protesters into the building, where they temporarily occupied the platform. In the end, they managed only to delay the proceedings by half an hour, and force its rearrangement into two smaller debates.

Communists do not bend over backwards to help the reactionary organisations spread their views. Fascism is distinguished from its predecessors by being the last line of defence of class society against universal liberation. The revolting brutality for which it is infamous is not an accidental phenomenon, but a necessary function of its social role.

We are, and must be, fascism's most vocal and steadfast opponents - if only because the fascists are certainly ours (first they came for the communists ...). We do not abstract free speech from its proper place in the reality of its use in social intercourse, like the liberals, but realise that the public statements of fascists are necessarily accompanied by the 'hidden programme' of violence against all their opponents.

The establishment reaction

This is not to say that we share the opinions of all who opposed the invitation, or are even united with them in any meaningful way.

Since this is not a time of extreme crisis, the bourgeois establishment was queuing up to denounce the proceedings. Julian Lewis MP, the shadow defence minister, publicly resigned his lifetime membership of the union. Some of his comments on BBC television were perceptive: "I think there are people who are confusing this with an issue of free speech," he remarked. "It's not an issue of free speech to offer a privileged platform from a prestige organisation."

However, he is, of course, articulating a typically elitist Tory position. In his resignation letter, he wrote: "[Irving and the BNP] have been exposed and discredited time and again by people vastly more qualified than you in arenas hugely more suited to the task than an undergraduate talking-shop, however venerable." Which would be true, were he not talking about himself and his parliamentary colleagues. As it is, it is a laughable proposition.

New Labour functionary Trevor Phillips, meanwhile, called the event a "disgrace", fuming: "As a former president of the National Union of Students, I'm ashamed that this has happened" (although precisely what Phillips' CV has to do with it is something of a mystery). His view, in its bald simplicity, was typical of the establishment reaction, which ran more or less along the lines of 'The BNP are very, very bad, as are holocaust deniers. It's a terrible disgrace.'

Of course, these people have a very good reason for being defensive. It would certainly be convenient for them to caricature the whole matter of the rising profile of the far right in terms of a cabal of devious evil-doers and their useful idiots. Unfortunately, the truth is that fascism develops as a necessary excrescence of the capitalist system - a system defended and operated by the likes of Lewis and Phillips.

The bourgeoisie has proved itself consistently incapable of living up to its own 'democratic' PR, for the simple reason that it has no interest in defending democracy. Fascism may only be installed in times of severe crisis, but it is nevertheless used at all other times as a stick with which to keep the self-activity of the masses to a minimum. 'Vote for us,' the ruling class says, 'to keep the extremists out.' The truth is that - for the time being - Nick Griffin is the useful idiot: for the likes of Trevor Phillips.


It is a shame that the Socialist Workers Party-dominated 'united front', Unite Against Fascism, is in its political approach of a piece with the bourgeois charlatans quoted. Throughout the run-up to this event, its pronouncements have been getting more and more hysterical. "Would you give Hitler a platform?" asked the reliably incandescent Weyman Bennett. He refused an invitation to take part.

In the event, it was UAF which led the protests. And, sure enough, the slogans were directed almost wholly at how bad the BNP is. The one slogan with any positive content at all was the now infamous 'Hope, not hate'.

The SWP has chosen to concentrate entirely on getting 'respectable', mainstream opinion on its side. As such, it has tailored its entire strategy around these figures' programme. At best, it is the programme of patronising liberal 'awareness' campaigns and the like. At worst, the SWP has openly called for the state to send far-right figures to jail for 'hate speech', and enthusiastically feted the Racial and Religious Hatred Act last year.

This is deeply misguided. As I have mentioned, appealing to the bourgeois establishment's 'anti-fascist' credentials is a dangerous illusion. What it is, in point of fact, is pro-capitalist, which means at certain times pro-fascist. To hand over the right to decide which political discourses are acceptable to the bourgeois state essentially amounts to printing out the train tickets to Dachau for the left, including the SWP - because you are giving these powers to a state apparatus which in times of extreme crisis will itself turn to fascism.

A better approach

It is in this way - and this way only - that communists defend the free speech of fascists. With regard to the bourgeois state, all opinions must be permissible. The main political lesson of Marxism is that this state, at any and all times, is the main enemy. It is what the ruling class deploys against us whenever we threaten its power. Furthermore, the ready-made state apparatuses that Nick Griffin aspires to acquire - police, army, prisons - are precisely what makes the prospect of fascist power so terrifying. The SWP approach, by contrast, ignores all this - thus it is useless to the anti-fascist struggle.

What does this mean, then, for anti-fascism on the campus? Firstly, the CPGB has traditionally sought to undermine the traditional focus in the far left on 'no platform' tactics. In my view (and in many of the more subtle no-platformers), reducing everything down to displays of physical force or, in UAF's case, liberal, 'something must be done' outrage is indeed a chimera.

Nevertheless, I would argue that communists must support, and fight for, no-platform policies on campuses - or at least when it comes to student unions. The reason for this is simple - student unions are not the state. In however distorted a fashion, they represent organs of self-organisation among students. Furthermore, they hold public general meetings at which such a policy can be regulated by students and any attempt to no-platform left organisations circumvented.

Given this, any appeals to rights of 'free speech' are bogus. Nick Griffin should be perfectly free, as far as the police are concerned, to write his crypto-fascist rubbish. That right is not infringed if I fail to invite him to give a speech in my living room - nor is it infringed if a body of students does the same. It is not even infringed if some militants from Antifa break his collarbone in the street. We should defend the rights of fascists only where and when our own rights are, by the same stroke, under threat.

In the case, however, of a university which has not passed a no-platform policy facing an invitation to fascist figures, and the failure of all available means to prevent the event from taking place (short, of course, of high court injunctions and the like), communists should not be squeamish about entering the debating chamber. If the meeting cannot be shut down, it is better to minimise the profit to fascists. Whether this means disrupting the meeting or simply refuting the racist bilge claim by claim is a matter of tactics.

What did Weyman Bennett, when it became clear that the attempts to stop the meeting had failed, have to lose by taking the platform? Why shouldn't he admit defeat to the OU (who did - after all - win), cut his losses and do his best to expose Nick Griffin inside the hall? The only problem with this is that the entirely neutered political approach of UAF would have played directly into the hands of an experienced dissembler such as Griffin.

It is these scenarios - and they are inevitable when the left is as weak as it is now - which invalidate attempts to elevate no-platform into a 'basic principle' of anti-fascist struggle. Basic principles are those that follow necessarily from the logic of fascism - for example, the basic principle of organising our forces apart from, and against, the state follows from fascism's relationship with that state. No tactic - however glorious its pedigree - must dominate a struggle by elevating itself into an untouchable dogma. In a struggle as important as anti-fascism, this applies a hundredfold.