Anti-fascism in the 21st century: on violence and censorship
Part three of a series exploring anti-fascism from a radical, working class perspective explores the concepts of “physical opposition” and “no platform.”
Traditionally, antifascists have held to a philosophy of “no platform” and “physical opposition” to the far-right. However, in recent times, these stances have come under particular scrutiny and criticism. Both the efficacy and the morality of “no platform” have come under intense scrutiny, particularly from liberals, and many have been quick to equate “physical opposition” with wanton violence.
One problem with the debate as it stands, however, is that it lacks context. Particularly, the meaning of each phrase is not the same to all those involved in the debate, even if on the same side of it.
In the previous articles of this series, I have offered a radical, working class perspective on antifascism. Here, my aim is to apply that perspective to the questions of “no platform” and “physical opposition.”
The militant tradition
It is important, at this point, to differentiate between militant antifascism and liberal antifascism. The contrast between the two currents is vital to understanding this issue.
Apart from tactics, which I shall come to, where militants and liberals differ is on the perspective that they offer with regard to fascism.
The liberal stance is a moral one, seeing fascism as”extremism” and a particularly virulent form of racism and bigotry. For example, Hope not Hate argue that the British National Party (BNP) “remains firmly entrenched in the principles of racial superiority and the banning of racial integration.” Their aim, then, is to oppose the BNP for “the great British tradition of tolerance, equality and compassion.” Every point against them is in the context of race, with only the occasional usage of the word “Nazi” pointing to any wider political criticism.
In contrast, militant group Antifa make the following point;
It’s quite common for people to equate fascism with racism and it’s often the case that fascist groups will use racist or xenophobic rhetoric and propaganda in order to spread their message. However it would be wrong to see fascism solely as a form of racism.
Traditionally fascist parties have used ethnic minorities as a scapegoat for the problems created by capitalism. For instance the BNP often point to migrant workers as being the cause for the degradation of the NHS or the reason for the lack of decent social housing. Similarly they blame migrant workers for “taking our jobs” instead of attacking the employers who routinely pay derisory wages and treat workers like disposable commodities. The reason fascist groups tend to attack ethnic minorities and immigrants in this way are because they want to divide the working class. By sowing the seeds of division, fragmentation and suspicion in working class communities they undermine notions of solidarity and cooperation thus strengthening the status quo and perpetuating existing inequalities in society.
Racism and xenophobia are not the primary goals of fascism but are rather part of their means for promoting the ascendancy of the nation state. Fascism promotes the ideals of nationalism and patriotism in opposition to internationalism and class solidarity. Fascism’s glorification of the nation is really the veneration of the hierarchies that exist within the nation. Fascist’s promoted the interests of ruling elite above those of the majority and in the past has used all the apparatus of the state to ensure that those hierarchies in society are maintained and bolstered. In this context talk of supporting the “indigenous people” is used to garner the support of the white working and middle classes to undermine class unity between people of different race or nationality.
Fascism should be opposed because it aims to crush all autonomy and freedom in the name of creating a strong nation state; it curtails freedom of expression, supports rigid hierarchies and most importantly stands against the interests of every working class person regardless of their race or nationality.
Moreover, liberal antifascists are particularly concerned with “legality” and “legitimacy.” There is much hand wringing over this matter, and constant attempts are made to prove that the BNP is not “legitimate” or “respectable.” To the contrary, Antifa say that they have “no interest in the legality or otherwise of the BNP. Nor do we care whether the State permits or prohibits such fascist groups.” No, their only interest is that “the working class have every right to stand up to and act against fascist politics and sympathisers in our communities and workplaces.”
For them, “the current Labour government have done more harm to communities than the BNP could even hope to do at the moment.” As such, “it’s no good telling people to vote for anybody but the BNP in order to keep them out because invariably that means either voting for the government or voting for another party who would implement the same sort of policies that Labour has done.” Thus, “legitimacy” means nothing when granted by those who are “undermining the welfare state and job security while simultaneously pitting domestic workers against migrant workers,” and have consequently “created a situation whereby the BNP are seen as a radical opposition to the government.”
The two forms of “no platform”
In the context of these two competing perspectives, it is not surprising that “no platform” has two entirely different meanings.
For liberal antifascists, “there is a world of difference between defending free speech and choosing to provide a platform for fascists.” As such, they will actively oppose the right of fascist individuals and groups to speak publicly, whether at a debate on freedom of speech organised by the Oxford Union, or on the BBC’s flagship current affairs show Question Time.
The essential position, then, is censorship. Hope not Hate talks about the “good example” set when BNP candidates are “not invited” to debates, or have their “invitation withdrawn” under public pressure.
As critics point out, such a policy plays right into the hands of fascists. In New Statesman, over a decade ago, Kenan Malik argued that “there has always been an ambiguity about policies which made an offence of incitement to racial hatred, or which tried to deny a platform for racists and fascists: the concern for greater equality and freedom for black people sat uneasily with demands for restrictions on free speech.” His question is “how can we establish the distinction between truth and falsehood without open debate?” Those who would censor fascists or other “extremists” are unwittingly “making it much more difficult to answer [them].” His hope, then, is “that equality and free speech are seen not as antagonistic claims, but as two necessary elements of a freer society.”
On the now defunct Far Left Watch, a right-wing blogger makes a similar point;
1) It is outrageously hypocritical.
NP is a concept introduced and enforced by people who have absolutely no legal power or democratic mandate. Groups such as UAF and ‘Hope Not Hate’ do not stand for election. Therefore, these people take it on themselves to spit in the face of democracy and decide in their pseudo-elitist, unelected groups as to whom the rest of the population are permitted to hear and whom they are not. Needless to say, those whom the world are forbidden to hear are those who disagree with far left politics.
Such a policy is enforced physically on regular occasions. Can you imagine anything more hypocritical than such actions from a group that claims to oppose Fascism?
2) It is counterproductive.
Westerners are raised in a cultural and academic environment that encourages critical thinking and questioning of authority. If I tell you right now: “Don’t you dare read the rest of this text!” you will have two reactions. One of them will be “Who the hell are you to tell me what I can and can’t read?!” and the other would be “Wow! I wonder what it is in this text that I can’t see! Must be good!”. You will become twice as determined to read it.
So when the UAF and their ilk attempt to enforce their rules on people, a sizeable number of them will have their curiosity tweaked and will dislike the UAF.
3) It is unprogressive.
There was a time when it was sacrilege to believe that The Earth orbited The Sun. There was a time when it was abominable to believe that women should have the right to vote. If we allow self declared thought police to control what sacred cows we can and can’t discuss, who is to say that this will not be a serious liability to our development?
4) It creates hysteria, lies and corruption.
Last week I was in a “debate” with a UAF supporter (you know who you are!) on Facebook who had requested (and been denied) that I was banned from a certain group (or as he put it: “Can we adopt no platform?”). He went on to say that “racial assaults have soared in Barking and Dagenham where the BNP have seats. When the BNP get confident, they get vicious.”
I immediately stepped in to show him a police report that specifically showed racial assaults had dropped in the area. If this UAF member had his way, his lies would have been allowed to spread because I would have been banned.
And lies emanate far more frequently from political groups who have no opposition to balance them. They believe in their own power, they become arrogant and they become dishonest. There are examples of this around the world.
5) It is unnecessary.
We already have the only restriction on free speech that is ever required. It is called Common Law. Common Law is apolitical (in theory) and has evolved over the hundreds of years that we Brits have striven towards democracy. As such it is not designed from the whims of any self important extremists, it is not so vulnerable to fashionable thought of one short period and it is democratic. Common Law provides the protection we need from those who would incite others to do us harm, or violate our civil rights. Many people have died struggling for Common Law to protect us all, and it should never be overruled by a mob.
I have, myself, argued along such lines. My own thought is that “if we are to try and censure that which is hateful or offensive, then an obvious question arises: who is left to decide what is hateful and offensive?” History tells us that the state is more likely to censure genuine radicalism before it does the reaction of movements such as fascism, and the primary victim would be the ability to question established power.
What, then, is the militant version of “no platform?” Is it not covered by the criticisms made above? It is not, because in fact groups such as Antifa agree with the sentiments I have expressed. “None of us have the power to stop fascists saying what they think, we cannot legislate against their words no matter how vile we consider them to be and neither would we want to be in a position to do so,” as they say on their own website.
However, there is a distinction to be made between speech and organisation.
As the Workers’ Solidarity Movement declare in a policy statement, “we do not oppose the right of racists to free speech,” although “racists should be actively challenged and opposed on all occasions. The task is not to prevent racists from speaking but to defeat their arguments by putting forward a strong alternative, and by challenging the assumptions and myths on which racist arguments are based.” However, “attempts by fascist groups to recruit members to fascism cannot be tolerated” and “racist organisations/individuals who physically attack people … do not have the right to organise, to recruit for such activities.” Thus, “in such instances, force should be met with force.”
Antifa agree. “If all Nick Griffin and his disciples were doing was talking amongst themselves about repatriating migrant workers, clamping down on those they saw as deviants and splitting communities along lines of race then there wouldn’t be a serious problem.” But this is not the case. “The reality is the BNP are organising to gain seats of power and to implement their white nationalist policies,” and “this attempt to gain power and influence must be challenged by all effective means.”
This is the militant version of “no platform.”
Physical opposition or wanton violence?
There are those who argue that such a position is simply one of violence and intimidation, more akin to fascism than to antifascism.
In the Guardian after last year’s Red, White and Blue Festival, Rick Lyons made the case that Antifa “gifted the BNP a PR victory by allowing them to seem the more law-abiding and reasonable group.” Their crime, as he puts it, was “fighting with police, taking private property and scaring residents.”
In fact, as Lyons himself admits, the group were actually partaking in non-violent direct action by blocking the road “with objects from farmyards.” Riot police subsequently used excessive force to remove them “severely and quickly.” As I have discussed previously, “direct action – in all its forms – is the precise reason that we enjoy the (limited) freedoms we do today.” As with Antifa’s road blockade, the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement were met with police brutality. The only difference is that Antifa, not being pacifists, physically defended themselves.
It was George Orwell who argued, in Pacifism and the war, that “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist.” Though he was referring specifically to World War II, there are points that modern antifascists need to take into account;
As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.
This rebuttal can clearly apply to Lyons, who urges that Antifa “take off their black bandannas and hoods, put down the missiles [?], and join” the “moral force” of “Unite Against Fascism, Stop the BNP and trade unions,” in their “well-attended march and rally.” But, if direct action was “a complete failure” in this instance, what success can waving a banner and shouting in an area designated by police – whilst the BNP enjoy their festival utterly unperturbed – possibly achieve?
Lyons clearly intends to imply the accusation, which Orwell is utterly scornful of, that “those who fight against Fascism go Fascist themselves.” Far Left Watch made a similar point, as quoted above, with regard to no platform being “physically enforced,” and the idea that Antifa are “thugs” and “black-hooded goons” prevails, unsurprisingly, in far-right circles as well as liberal and libertarian ones. But are the accusations valid?
Antifa – as well as the affiliated 635 Group and the now-defunct 43 Group – follow a militant tradition which they trace back to the Battle of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War. As explained above, they view physical resistance as a necessity in defence of the working class. However, according to their founding statement, “physical confrontation [when necessary] is only one of our tactics …, we do not aim to fetishise it as one tactic above all others, nor will we allow a hierarchy to develop based on the kudos of street-fighting.” Of course, they also say that “those with a moral problem regarding this issue should be advised that this is not the group for them,” but this is pointed at those of a pacifist leaning rather than those who might object to unprovoked attacks. Though they are unapologetic about their tactic of “confronting fascism physically,” they are also unequivocal in their intent only to use it “when it is necessary.”
Such necessity is more evident in Europe and Russia than in Britain, though perhaps only because the BNP tries (though often failing) to keep a tight rein on the violence of members. At least when the press are around.
In Europe, however, there is a considerable list of Antifa activists murdered by fascists. Far-right attacks in Germany reached a record high in Germany in 2007, whilst gay rights activist Peter Tatchell witnessed first hand the violence on offer from Russian neo-Nazis. Other examples, notably in Greece and Italy, abound. America, too, sees considerable ultra-nationalist activity, from “skinhead” marches in Philadelphia to incidences of mass murder in Canada. Antifa Belfast arose in response to a spate of anti-Roma violence in Ireland.
The necessity of resistance
These few examples, then, demonstrate the necessity of physical resistance to fascism, as enshrined in the militant “no platform” policy. Organised fascist and racist groups pose a physical threat to ethnic minorities, LBGTQ people, and, primarily, to the organised working class. In the face of this, and given the documented complicity of the state in such repressive violence, resistance organised at a grassroots level is the only sensible option.
It is important, in organising such resistance, that we do not live up to the criticisms directed at us. A movement built upon the repression of freedoms and unprovoked violence is antithetical to the interests of the working class, no matter who leads it, and we should resist such a trend. Likewise, Searchlight’s complicity in Security Services harrassment of left-wing activists is a warning of the dangers inherent in an “antifascist” movement that collaborates with the state.
Criticisms such as those mentioned above will come our way no matter what, and our perspective should be clear enough that we can challenge them head on.