the Disillusioned kid: No Pasaran!
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Monday, October 24, 2005

No Pasaran!

I've been out of touch with events in Nottingham since I left, but recently decided to put myself back on the Lenton Anarchist Forum email list to see what was going on. Big mistake. In one day my mailbox was bombarded by a barrage of messages debating the far-right British Nationalist party (BNP) and how we should respond to them, the key point being whether we should support an "no platform" policy. (For those of you who haven't spent as much time as I have hanging around with lefty's, no platformism entails denying fascists, or in some cases other extremist groups, the right to free speech, although the means adopted to acheive this can vary widely.)

The brouhaha started after Sanctuary, a free newspaper written by students and disseminated around the university decided to print an article by "Dr Phil Edwards" encouraging students to vote for the BNP. I haven't as yet been able to read the article so I can't comment on it directly, but I think the issues which it raises generalise and so I thought it might be worth offering my hapenny's worth.

I've touched on a lot of the relevant issues on at least two seperate occasions and I don't want to go over too much of the same territory (god forbid I might repeat myself repeat myself!). The basic point of my argument then was that progressives should be opposed to bans of fascist/racist organisations even where we consider their ideology abhorrent. The same applies to official no platform policies. Sure, we might be able to get the University or the Students Union (incidentally Nottingham's Union is one of the few in the country which doesn't have a no platform policy) to support such a policy, but what's to stop them using it against other "extremists".

No platform policies are commonplace at Unis accross the country and supported by the National Union of Students (NUS). While initially targetted specifically against far-right groups these have subsequently been extended to Islamist groups such as Al-Mujahiroun and Hizb ut-Tahrir. (Fascism is in any case notoriously difficult to define.) What's to say they couldn't be extended further? The Peace Movement at Nottingham has made a point of being as irritating as possible and is considering a sustained campaign against arms-manufacturers Rolls Royce who are a major sponsor of the Uni. Is it so hard to believe that the institution's governing body would like to shut them up? The George Fox 6 demonstrates just how repressive universites can be when they want to be. Why give them another stick with which to beat us?

Rejecting an official no platform policy, however, does not preclude an unofficial one whereby activists set out to prevent fascists from being able to speak. This has been attempted, with varying degrees of success, by a number of anti-fascist groups over the years. I don 't neccesarily reject this as a tactic. The fascists are our enemy. If we are serious about building abetter world, or even about stopping this one getting any worse we are going to have to beat them. Exactly how we do this will neccesarily be determined by context, but I don't think that rational debate alone will be sufficient. In 1936 the only response to the fascist coup in Spain was to take up arms against it, similarly Hitler could only be defeated through the application of military force (which is not to say that World War II was fought because our leaders were commited anti-fascists; they weren't). I am not suggesting that we should be arming ourselves with mail order Kalashnikovs and marching round to Nick Griffin's farm in Wales (although it's a heartwarming thought), but what I am trying to point to is the historical context in which the struggle against fascism should be viewed.

I make no secret of my respect for the militant anti-fascists who have confronted the Fash over the years. In the 1970's it was not uncommon for meetings to be turned over by the National Front. That doesn't happen anymore, in large part because groups like Anti-Fascist Action took them on at their own game and won. While a riot might inject some excitement into otherwise mundane meetings, I tend to think on balance that not being hit round the head with the furniture is probably a good thing. Nevertheless, with the BNP having withdrawn from the streets, turning instead to electoralism (which they have done with some success); the NF amounting to little more than an unfunny joke; and Combat 18 having been decimated by the very anti-fascists they were formed to defend their aryan brothers against, it is not immediately clear that this strategy can or should be transplanted into the present context.

I believe that activist no platformism (as opposed to official no platformism) should be viewed as a tactic which we may take up on occasion, but which should not become a dogma. Too many leftist groups have taken this position, with the result that even tiny fascist meetings are assailed by huge numbers of anti-fascists. Is this really the best way we could be spending our time? I think not. Insofar as they're not really a threat at the present time I don't see that preventing them talking to themselves really helps us much. Nevertheless, I think we should adhere to the slogan of the Republicans in Spain: "No Pasaran!" "They shall not pass!" We may allow them to go so far, but no further. If they try to cross that line then we do whatever it takes to stop them.

Some people argue that freedom of speech should be an absolute. I disagree. If we talk about freedom of speech that implies a rights system. Rights within such a system may well conflict and will neccesarily have to be balanced. Your right to privacy prevents me from barging into your house, flypostering your walls and berating your taste in televisual entertainment. Such an extreme example is easy, in the real world the conflicts are much more complex. The important thing is how we confront them.

I think freedom of speech should be allowed to go a long way. I'm opposed to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and proposals to prohibit the "glorification of terrorism" (although that specific provision now seems to have been dropped). I'm increasingly dubious even about the laws against racism, not because I have any support for people who espouse such bigotry, but because I'm unconvinced that imprisoning them is the most effective response. I even think that holocaust revisionists like David Irving should be allowed to pedal their obnoxious nonsense for much the same reason, in any case banning such material only serves to strengthen its credibility in the eyes of believers.

The distintion I draw with regard to fascism (as a movement) is a strategic one. The struggle against fascism is more than a parlour game. It has real consequences for real people in the real world. As such we need to think long and hard about how we respond to fascism wherever it may rear its ugly head. During global economic summits (Seattle, Genoa et al) attempts by activists to stop delegates getting to their Very Important Meetings could be said to be restricting their freedom of speech, yet it is widely considered to be a justified tactic to use against the system we are opposing. Nevertheless, despite all of this, I hardly think an article in a shitty student rag which probably only gets skim read by the predominantly middle-class students who are likely to pick it up, is something we need to get all that worried by. A well written rejoinder would almost certainly be more effective than some attempt to restrict (or even prevent) the paper's circulation.

As an adjunct to the above, it might be worth briefly considering the provenance of the article's author. "Dr Phil Edwards" is in fact a pseudonym adopted by the party's press secretary Stuart Russell. Even his doctorate is dubious, he claims to have taught quantum mechanics at the University of Nottingham, although when I directly challenged him on the issue of his qualifications he dodged the question. Make of that what you will. (How I got to ask the question is an intriguing story in itself. I'll limit my comments, however, to noting that I had considered trying to prevent him being able to speak, but am glad I didn't because of how much useful information I learnt about the way the BNP actually views the world. It was also encouraging. As the party's press secretary, Edwards/Russell is presumably the best they have to offer, this didn't prevent him being torn to pieces by a bunch of politics students.)

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