The Oxford Union’s recent decision to debate with two of Britain’s leading Nazis – Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP) and David Irving, a convicted Holocaust denier – provoked widespread condemnation.
Unite Against Fascism joined with many others to organise a successful anti-fascist protest. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, described the invitations as “an absolute disgrace”.
But not everyone agreed. Bill Rammell, New Labour’s minister for higher education, spoke out in favour of giving the Nazis a platform. “We have to tolerate the expression of abhorrent views in the name of free speech,” he said.
The argument is not confined to Oxford. Last week saw students at Northumbria university in Newcastle voting in favour of a “no platform for fascists” policy.
In contrast, students at the University of East Anglia held a referendum last week that rejected no platform.
This debate over whether fascists should be entitled to “freedom of speech” is by no means new.
It arose strongly in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany as liberals, socialists and communists argued over how to respond to the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis.
It returned in the 1970s, when the National Front was sending its thugs to march through Lewisham and Southall.
While the historical circumstances vary, the broad outlines of the debate remain the same.
On the one hand, liberals tend to frame the argument in terms of free speech, arguing that however reprehensible the fascists are, they should be defeated through debate, just like any other opinion or political current.
Socialists, in contrast, tend to argue that fascism is not a political current like any other and should not be treated as such. Fascists are dedicated to destroying every vestige of democracy and have no misgivings about using thuggery to get their way.
Mere words are not enough to defeat them – they must also be physically confronted and excluded from public space.
Moreover, fascists do not seek out public platforms in order to test the strength of their ideas. What they seek is the veneer of respectability that such platforms provide – a veneer they desperately need in the aftermath of the Second World War and Hitler’s Holocaust.
The socialist argument is based on historical experience. Fascism first appeared in Italy in the early 1920s, when Benito Mussolini organised armed squads of war veterans to terrorise the workers’ movement by breaking up meetings and murdering trade unionists.
The state did little or nothing to stop these “blackshirts” and the fascist movement rapidly grew.
But thuggery on the streets was only one aspect of Mussolini’s strategy. The other was to court respectability by posing as a legitimate political party and contesting elections.
This two-pronged attack – pretending to be committed to democratic norms while organising terror on the ground – has remained the characteristic defining feature of fascism ever since.
The mainstream parliamentary parties in Mussolini’s time did not know how to react to the fascists. They deplored the blackshirts’ violence – while in practice doing nothing about it and insisted that the fascists had to be treated like any other party and granted the same constitutional rights.
The results were disastrous. Threatened with an increasingly militant workers’ movement, the Italian ruling class allowed Mussolini to seize power in 1922.
The fine words about democracy disappeared as the fascists abolished press freedom, suspended all democratic rights and went about expunging every trace of opposition, protest or criticism from their new “corporate state”.
Just ten years later in Germany the same pattern repeated itself. The mainstream parties of Germany’s post-war Weimar republic – conservative, liberal and social democrat – all united to condemn Hitler’s Nazis, but insisted that they had to be challenged only through constitutional means.
Once in power, Hitler threw into the concentration camps those very same people who had once defended his rights to “free speech”.
The BNP today stand in the same political tradition as Hitler and Mussolini. So the BNP are not simply a bunch of obnoxious racists – they are an organised political force that deliberately aims at smashing up what little democracy we have at present and instituting a racial reign of terror.
They have a strategy for achieving those aims – a strategy that has worked in the past and can work again.
Fortunately we too have a strategy for stopping the fascist threat. It involves recognising that fascism is an exceptional threat to all of us, and that it cannot be treated as a legitimate form of politics.
It is incumbent on all of us to unite together and prevent fascism from getting a toehold in public space.
And our resistance should not be confined to legal or constitutional means – we have to build the broadest possible movement that can physically stop the Nazis from organising.
So what does this mean for the arguments around no platform today? We need to make clear to people that the BNP is a fascist organisation – and that as such they pose a unique danger and should not enjoy the rights granted to democratic parties.
We say no platform for fascists because of what they are and what they do, not because of their “opinions”, objectionable though these undoubtedly are.
Griffin’s strategy with the BNP over the past few years has been to try to cover up the organisation’s fascist character, a strategy pursued by the French Nazi leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
So Griffin claims the BNP has put its thuggish days behind it – he even claims to have repudiated racism. We need to explain to people that these are lies that follow a long tradition of fascist parties masking their true intentions.
We also need to make clear that no platform works, and that is why the movement has adopted it as a tactic. In Britain no platform policies have successfully prevented Nazis from organising on campus.
In France, where the argument has not been won, Le Pen’s fascists have built up an extensive student organisation, and in some cases taken control of student unions.
We also need to connect words and deeds. There is a continuity between fascist hate speech directed at ethnic minorities and physical attacks upon them.
The former encourages the latter. Giving Griffin a platform at the Oxford Union sends a signal to his bootboys on the streets – it gives them the confidence to go on the attack, with frequently murderous consequences.
Liberal common sense tells us that democracy is a matter of exchanging views and critical reason. That is true – but there’s a lot more to it than that.
One cannot rationally “debate” with those who systematically lie about their real aims and views, nor can one “debate” those who use terror tactics and thuggery against ethnic minorities, trade unionists and anyone who disagrees with them.
And why should those who have lost their families in the Holocaust have to “debate” the reality of what happened with someone like Irving, whose only purpose is to dissemble and lie in order to muddy the waters of history – and thus pave the way to repeating Hitler.
Griffin promises an “all white” Britain, just as Hitler once promised a “Jew free” Germany. And Griffin’s politics will follow the same genocidal logic if they are ever given the chance.
That is why it is pointless to grant the fascists a platform in order to “defeat them in debate”. Such set-piece events do nothing to stop the fascists outside the formalities of the debating chamber.
They do not deter the fascists from organising – on the contrary, fascists crave the respectability and legitimacy that such “debates” inevitably confer upon them.
What does defeat the fascists – and what they are most scared of – is mass grassroots opposition to their presence. That is how the Anti Nazi League defeated the National Front in the 1970s and it is how we can defeat the BNP today.
Democracy relies on the minds and bodies of ordinary people – and it is this force that offers the means to fight fascism’s threat to democracy.