James Harvey reports on a timely conference that produced a strange outcome
The launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Speech on Saturday February 13 came at a time when this issue has become central for both the Labour movement and wider British society. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the turnout was pretty good, just over 300 at the height.
The campaign was initially triggered in response to the ongoing purge and attacks on political debate and democracy in the Labour Party. Whilst for the Labour left much of the focus has been on the ways that the fake International Holocaust Remembrance Association ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism is being used to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and ‘chill’ any discussion about Israel/Palestine, these attacks now go much further. The witch-hunt has taken on a dynamic of its own. As the draft Charter for Free Speech presented to the conference reminded us, these attacks now extend into universities and schools, whilst state and corporate secrecy undermine free journalism and the exposure of corruption and wrongdoing.
Moreover, from the opposite point of view, the Conservatives have taken up the cry and are trying to make the issue their own. For the Tories, condemnation of ‘cancel culture’, opposition to ‘no-platforming’ in universities, and attacks on ‘woke social justice warriors’ have become an increasingly important part of their stock-in-trade. In standing up to a supposedly new wave of authoritarian leftism said to be sweeping the campuses and suppressing public debate, Tory ministers such as the hapless secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, now propose new legislation and pose as the defenders of ‘free speech’ and democratic rights.
Thus, a Labour Campaign on Free Speech – standing up to these attacks and standing for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication – could not have come at a better time. Unfortunately, the conference failed to offer such a clear rallying call. Instead we were presented with all the contradictions and confusions that currently characterise the politics and demands of the left on this issue. From the beginning the conference was presented with two clearly distinct and quite opposite positions on free speech, in the form of amendments from Labour Party Marxists and Tony Greenstein. The LPM amendment argued: “We stand for unrestricted freedom of speech and publication”, whilst comrade Greenstein proposed a much more restrictive ‘free speech, but …’ approach. His amendment argued that “Free Speech is not an absolute right. It does not include the right to ‘Shout fire in a crowded theatre’ [Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Schenck v. United States (1919)]. Free Speech doesn’t, for example include the right to incite racial hatred or advocate the harm of others because of their protected characteristics (race, disability, sexual orientation, gender, etc).”
These differences, ‘for’ and ‘against’, were brought out by the very long list of ‘top table’ speakers – Graham Bash, Chris Williamson, Esther Giles, Ronnie Kasrils, David Miller, Norman Finkelstein, Sami Ramadani, etc – and in the very restricted ‘floor’ debate.
Moving the LPM amendment, John Bridge argued that unrestricted free speech and opposition to censorship were integral to the DNA of the labour movement. While it is wrong to deliberately cause panic by falsely shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, that is a different matter. Free, democratic debate in all its forms was essential – both for the contemporary political health of our movement and for the development of the working class as the future ruling class. Furthermore, if we supported limitations on free speech based on the categories of ‘protected characteristics’, comrade Bridge argued, we were accepting the bourgeois liberal framework of identity politics, codified in law, and giving the state the right to police discussion and debate.
In moving his amendment, Tony Greenstein’s main focus was on ‘no platform for fascists and racists’ as the basis for limitations on freedom of speech. Drawing on what has become the common sense of too much of the left, comrade Greenstein based his argument on a particular reading of the struggle against Nazism in the 1930s and elevated ‘no platforming’ to a fundamental principle that justified restrictions on free speech.
This set the tone for the rest of the discussion. Comrades who supported Tony’s amendment largely drew on either a rather simplified and somewhat distorted history of pre-1939 anti-fascism or related their involvement in anti-fascist ‘no platforming’ from the 1970s onwards. In defining fascism as an ever-present, existential threat and thus elevating ‘no platforming’ to a principle, fascism and Nazism were de-historicised and de-contextualised. The result was that the real counterrevolutionary nature of fascism and its relationship with capitalism are ignored. Thus, for these comrades, ‘no platforming’ becomes a moral stance directed against an eternal evil rather than a reactionary movement to be confronted and defeated politically by the organised working class. Although supporters of comrade Greenstein’s amendment supposedly drew on Trotsky’s advice in the 1930s – “if you cannot convince a fascist, acquaint his head with the pavement” – much of their analysis was actually rooted in Stalinist justifications for popular frontism in the 1930s, tinged with a dash of the official anti-fascist mythology of the post-1945 social democratic British state.
Supporters of the LPM amendment on “unrestricted freedom of speech” took up these arguments, both on the general principle of free speech and the specific historical context of the fight against fascism in the 1930s and after. LPM supporters argued that free speech had been a fundamental element in Marxist politics since the 19th century and was an important democratic demand for mass Marxist parties, such as the German Social Democratic Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Dismissing free speech as simply a “liberal abstraction”, as some comrades did, was a denial of these democratic traditions and a repudiation of the very oxygen that gives political life to our movement.
In dissecting Tony Greenstein’s confusion of principles and tactics, LPM comrades stressed that Marxists are not pacifists and would organise to defend democratic rights of organisation and assembly in the face of a fascist threat. However, our focus must remain on politically combating fascism and other reactionary movements by convincing their supporters, to use Trotsky’s words, and winning them over to a real alternative to capitalist reaction.
If this part of the discussion was rooted in the concrete historical experience of the Labour movement, other comrades in the discussion (and the ‘chat’ column in this online meeting) showed how far the current extension of ‘no platforming’ into debates about transphobia and radical feminism has distorted democratic debate. Comrades raised the exclusion of Esther Giles from a recent meeting of Labour left activists for alleged ‘transphobia’ and suggested that this represents the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of ‘no platforming’. In this, and other cases, a combination of the identity politics of protected characteristics and ‘safe spaces’, along with the faux militancy of pseudo-street politics, worked to stifle genuine political discussion.
Thankfully, no such restrictions on free speech applied at this conference and Esther Giles was given both a platform and the chance to speak freely. But unless freedom of speech is unrestricted – and proclaimed as such by our organisations – could we guarantee that this will always be the case? Will there not be further Esther Giles? Despite comrade Greenstein’s correct and well-argued support for her, does not his own ‘no platforming’ always leave the door open for the exclusion and suppression of ideas? The slanderous attempts to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism show how the Labour right can turn the ‘no platforming’ weapon against the left. Surely the whole experience of the current witch-hunt warns us that even the smallest concession on free speech paves the way for further attacks on the left and democratic rights in general.
Unfortunately, it was not so clear-cut to the majority of participants in this conference. When it came to the votes on the two amendments, both were passed, leaving the campaign with two contradictory positions! As it stands, the Labour Campaign for Free Speech is for both ‘unrestricted’ free speech and the ‘free speech, but …’ position!
This confusion will have to be addressed by the newly elected steering group, when it meets to chart the way forward for the campaign. That steering group will have a lot of work to do if it is to succeed in pushing back against the current attempts to close down free speech within the Labour movement and in society more widely.
Many of the motions passed by the conference on campaigning activity and organisation offer a coherent outline of the campaign’s future direction. We need to step up our activity in the Labour Party and the trade unions to defend free speech and democratic rights. Likewise, the Charter for Free Speech adopted by the conference has the correct demands and links to wider struggles for free speech: it is a good basis for a militant, democratic campaign. Organisationally, we need a membership campaign with committed supporters and accountable structures – not just a series of rallies with big-name speakers. Now is the time to get down to real work and fight back for free speech.
But, before any of this can be set in train, we need to be clear on our aims and objectives – above all we need to define ‘free speech’. The contradictions in our current position needs to be resolved urgently and democratically, The steering group needs to convene a further membership-based conference to decide on whether the campaign stands for unrestricted free speech or ‘free speech’ hedged around with caveats and limitations. Supporters of LPM on the steering group will be making just such a case for a membership conference and for a clear position, not a fudged compromise.