Category Archives: Labour Campaign for Free Speech

Defend David Miller

Championing unrestricted freedom of speech does not imply political agreement. Derek James of Labour Party Marxists explains

The campaign to get Bristol University academic David Miller dismissed from his post is just the latest example of a growing clampdown on free speech that is having a chilling effect on public life. Whether it be the restrictions on public protest proposed in the Johnson government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill or the continuing smears from the Labour right, which equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, these attacks are intensifying and now pose a serious threat to any forms of political dissent labelled as ‘extremist’ by the powers that be.1

In the case of professor Miller, the campaign has taken an all too predictable turn, with over 100 MPs and peers signing an all-party motion demanding that his university ‘take action’, accusing him of “inciting hatred against Jewish students” and claiming he has “undermined the safety and security of Jewish students under the pretence of free speech”.2 For these parliamentarians the core of their complaint is Miller’s opposition to Zionism and his ‘unacceptable views’ on the oppressive nature of the Israeli state.3

These attacks on David Miller, however, have not gone unanswered. The newly formed Labour Campaign for Free Speech (LCFS) has joined in the fight to defend both Miller and wider academic freedom. It has already mobilised support from an impressive range of academic and public figures, including Ken Loach, Alexei Sayle and Noam Chomsky, as well as organising online rallies and meetings to publicise the case.4 The latest event held to back David Miller took place on Saturday March 13 and attracted over 300 participants who heard from, amongst others, well-known rapper Lowkey, Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook, Israeli-raised academic Moshé Machover, and Deepa Driver, a campaigner for Julian Assange.5

The keynote for the rally was set by a spokesperson for LCFS, who argued that this is an important test case and that, if successful, other academics critical of Israel, could also be targeted and possibly fired. The aim was to create a climate of fear and silence academics, and others, from speaking out against Israel’s policies. The LCFS statement also correctly saw the conflation of criticism of Zionism with the hatred of Jews, and the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism to ban all serious criticism of the state of Israel, its policies and its ideology as the essential underpinnings of the campaign against Miller.6

However, it was Moshé Machover’s contribution that pointed to the wider political significance and international context of this ongoing campaign. The targeting of academics and political activists by the British establishment, pro-Israel organisations and the Labour right was designed to do more than stifle all opposition to the Zionist colonisation project and the Israeli state. As he has consistently argued, comrade Machover suggested that this campaign and support for Israel amongst the British ruling class is not motivated by an ideological commitment to Zionism per se, but is rather intimately connected to an essential strand in British foreign policy – toeing the US line. Thus, support for Israel – a key Middle East ally and junior partner of the imperialist hegemon – is not simply symbolic: it is both strategically and politically fundamental to the calculations and interests of the British state.7

Understanding these state connections and political interests is vital if we are not to fall into the trap of solely focusing on the Zionist lobby or arguing that, in pursuit of their sectional project, Zionists have successfully ‘captured’ the leaderships of the two main parties in Britain.8 As with the familiar, but profoundly wrong, arguments that it is the Israeli tail that wags the American dog, this approach actually inverts, and thus seriously distorts, the real nature of the political and power relationships between Britain, the US and Israel.

Significantly, the weaponising of anti-Semitism is an international phenomenon, used to not only undermine support for Palestinian rights, but also to weaken anti-imperialist politics and hinder the development of mass anti-war movements in Europe and the US. Increasingly, the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is being broadened to similarly equate radical opposition to capitalism itself with anti-Semitism and thus identify political dissent with ‘extremism’.9 So, in fighting back against these definitions and this policing of ‘acceptable’ perimeters, the politics of anti-imperialism must, of necessity, come together with the politics of free speech and the right to dissent. Moreover, for campaigns like LCFS to be both principled and successful in mobilising support, it is essential that this convergence occurs and that these links become indissoluble.

Our interests

All of which brings us back to the campaign to defend David Miller. Labour Party Marxists champions unrestricted freedom of speech, publication, organisation, assembly and the right to strike.10 At the launch conference of LCFS, our supporters strongly argued for the long-established Marxist view that open debate and the right to question ideas, conventions, rules and laws are fundamental democratic rights and valuable historical gains which must be vigorously defended.11

Thus we agree that the campaign to defend David Miller should be supported without reservation. It should go without saying that, in this context, an injury to one is an injury to all: any attack on his right to free speech is an attack on all our democratic rights. As comrade Machover argued before last Saturday’s conference, “David Miller should be defended by all those who value freedom of speech and in particular academic freedom.”12

However, our full support for professor Miller’s democratic rights does not extend to unconditionally backing his politics. In fact, we have fundamental differences with him on the nature and significance of ‘Islamophobia’ as a political dynamic that shapes the foreign and domestic policies of western states.13 His alignment with pro-Shia groups and work with religiously-oriented organisations like the Islamic Human Rights Commission points only to a sectional and religiously sectarian form of politics and runs counter to the radical, secular traditions of the workers’ movement.14

Likewise, David Miller’s analysis of the Zionist lobby and its political influence in the Labour Party fails to look at the wider context and reduces politics to a series of elite manipulations and machinations. He places particular emphasis on the links between Keir Starmer and ‘Zionist money’, and the way in which both Labour and the Tories are financed by Israelis or those who sympathise with Israel, such as Trevor Chinn – who was said to be close to both the New Labour project and to Boris Johnson, while the latter was mayor of London.15

Trying to explain the witch-hunt against the left, or political developments more generally, in this way seriously leads us in the wrong direction. If we are going to defeat the slander that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism and defend our democratic rights for free speech, then we can really have no time at all for these conspiracy theories or talk of shadowy networks working behind the scenes.

In politics it is not always open to us to choose our battleground, but the fight to defend David Miller and free speech is one campaign we must win. Free speech is not an optional extra or a bourgeois luxury – it has been fought for historically by the working class and it is a right we must maintain. It remains central to democratic politics and absolutely essential if we are to build a conscious movement that can take power and make the working class the ruling class.

  7. ‘Weaponising anti-Semitism’ Weekly Worker April 23 2020.↩︎
  9. See, for example, the ‘anti-Semitism conference’ organised by the US state department in 2020 (↩︎
  10. ‘We light fires’ Weekly Worker February 18 2021.↩︎
  11. ‘End the contradiction’, Labour Party Marxists.↩︎
  13. See N Massoumi, T Mills and D Miller What is Islamophobia? Racism, social movements and the state London 2017.↩︎

End the contradiction

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.