Paul Foot

Silencing the Nazi threat

(May 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994, pp. 9–11.
Copyright © 1994 Socialist Review
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Do fascists have the same right to free speech and organisation that other political parties do? Paul Foot explains that allowing them such freedom only results in the destruction of democracy and free speech for everyone else

WHY DO socialists deny free speech to fascists? After all, we are in favour of democracy. Socialist ideas flourish best where there are trade unions, public meetings, leaflets and newspapers which express different points of view. Imposing socialist ideas without that democratic debate is the opposite of real socialism.

Yet we deny these rights to the Nazis. Is this just the same sort of hypocrisy used by tyrants through the ages who have demanded free speech for themselves but seized the first opportunity to deny it to others? After all, runs our critics’ argument, the fascists are, like you, a minority. They have a ‘point of view’. Why should they be denied the right to put that point of view in the same way that you do?

There are two immediate answers. First, there is the connection between saying and doing. If an organised party goes around preaching race hatred against black people, as the British National Party does, that race hatred is bound to overflow into deeds. Every single survey in and around the Isle of Dogs in east London since the BNP won a council by-election there last year has proved the rise in attacks on black people, and the connection between those attacks and the election. It is as though all those who felt like beating up isolated and defenceless black people felt encouraged, from the election, by a surge of legitimacy. This legitimacy is increased by every article and every broadcast which treats the BNP like just another political party.

A recent programme in the excellent File on Four series is often quoted as an example of how the BNP can be humiliated by an intelligent interview. It is true that the fascist Beackon was made to sound an imbecile as he revealed that he did not know his party’s policy on social services and indeed did not know what social services are. But the producers of File on Four should hesitate before they congratulate themselves too heartily. For ‘balance’ they felt they had to present Beackon as a serious politician. They quoted a BNP supporter as saying that the best thing to do with Asian people is to ‘kick them in the gutter’. No one says that a fascist gang would be directly inspired by File on Four to go and kick Asians in the gutter. But the effect of broadcasting such a comment is not just to expose the nastiness of BNP support; it is also to legitimise it. The more BNP thugs appear on television trumpeting the master race, the more the few freedoms of the black people they persecute are curtailed. The ‘point of view’ of a fascist party is not only measured by their rights or freedoms, but also by the immediate and consequent curtailing of the rights and freedoms of everybody else.

The other answer to the question why deny free speech to the fascists is that the central aim of fascism is to destroy democracy. This is not speculation, as it might have been before Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922 or Hitler in Germany 11 years later. Now we know without any shadow of doubt that the aim of fascism is totally to destroy democracy and to remove the rights and freedoms of everyone except themselves.

ONE OF THE peculiar obsessions of the new breed of apologists for fascism is to insist on a crucial distinction between German and Italian fascism. This argument has built up to a crescendo since the recent elections in Italy. A good example of the new ‘freedom for fascists’ genre is the Economist, which is run by know-all yuppies with an admiring eye on the new Thatcherite millionaires. Under the heading Fascist Beasts, an Economist editorial (9–15 April) proclaimed that, compared with Hitler, Mussolini was a ‘barnyard rooster’. The editorial concluded:

‘The true mark of fascism, belief in a peculiar variety of one-party corporate state – not, it should be said, a belief shared by this newspaper – is not Nazism or racism. Let the word “fascist” be reserved for those who profess that belief, and today’s neo-fascists be judged for their own ideas, not Hitler’s.’

One curious feature of this argument (repeated in many different forms in the Italian liberal press and even by Martin Kettle in the Guardian) is that it overlooks a very consistent theme in fascism wherever it came to power: the complete destruction of the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Since the Economist will warm to the title, I quote from Carl T. Schmidt’s The Corporate State in Action, published in 1939:

‘Every newspaper must have a “responsible” [that is, a fascistic] editor and only journalists congenial to the government may be employed. A Minister of Propaganda undertakes to colour important despatches and to dole out instructions on the treatment of news items ... Mussolini has said: “Journalism is free just because it serves only one cause and one regime”.’

This unusual definition of press freedom was seized on by the man promoted by Hitler to take charge of the press in Germany after 1933: Dr Goebbels. His press law, declared in a single day in October 1933, made journalism a ‘public vocation’. It stipulated that all editors must be of Aryan descent, not married to a Jew. Section 14 ordered all editors to keep out of the newspaper anything ‘which in any manner is misleading to the public, mixes selfish aims with community aims, tends to weaken the strength of the German Reich, outwardly or inwardly, the common will of the German people, the defence of Germany, its culture or economy.’

In practice this meant the closing down of all journals which were not Nazi, and the sacking, imprisoning or murder of every journalist who refused to toe the Nazi line. Hitler summed up his own and his Propaganda Ministry’s approach with the chilling reminder:

‘The state dare not forget that all media have a duty to serve – a duty which flunkies of a so-called press freedom dare not be allowed to confuse.’

THE WHOLE POINT of fascism, whether under Hitler, Mussolini or Franco, was to expunge all opposition: to purge from the state every voice of protest or criticism. As Robert Brady shows in his Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, published long before the Holocaust, in 1937, the purpose of the National Press Chamber under the Nazis was not just to censor all opposition journalism but to spy on the resistance press as well.

This determination to wipe out all democratic freedoms was widely trumpeted after fascism seized state power. In the run up to the seizure of power, the fascists were more circumspect. To themselves in their private meetings and handpicked rallies, they denounced the ‘communist doctrine of democracy’ and promised the book burning to come. At election times, on the other hand, they were more constitutional. For as long as they thought it necessary, they promised to stand by the constitution and safeguard the freedom of the press and speech. Again and again they declared that they would extend to other parties and newspapers the freedom enjoyed by their own. They were especially eloquent on this subject when Social Democrats and Communists demanded that the fascist literature, which was leading among other things to the systematic violence against Jews, should be suppressed. No, no, the fascists objected. We do not approve racial violence. We respect the rights of others.

Today the Italian and French fascists and, even in their own pathetic way, the British National Party all protest that they don’t really know who Hitler was, and that all they seek is to put their point of view to the electorate as other parties can. Their hypocrisy is sometimes embarrassingly obvious. Fini, the Italian fascist leader, followed up his insistence that there is ‘all the difference in the world’ between what he stands for now and what Mussolini stood for in the 1920s and 1930s with an interview describing the butcher Mussolini as the ‘greatest statesman of the century’. His supporters too know what he stands for. They greeted his election success with cries of ‘Duce, Duce’, the same cry which brought Mussolini to power in 1922 and sustained him there for nearly 20 years.

Here in Britain a reckless television programme shows a ‘respectable’ fascist urging his supporters not to be violent, hardly commenting on the absurdity of the fact that the same ‘non-violent’ propagandist had just come out of prison after a long stretch for beating up a socialist on the tube.

The strategy of the fascists then and now is to use the freedoms won by fighters for democracy to gain respectability and electoral support so as more relentlessly to pursue their single purpose: to smash democracy and freedom to pieces.

These two arguments – the connection between words and deeds and the real purpose of fascism in the first half of this century – can be understood by everyone. Anyone who cares about free speech or democracy, whether a socialist or not, can understand the danger of applying the same democratic rules to an organised party which seeks to abolish all those rules and establish a totalitarian dictatorship.

But the argument does not end there. Members of the National Union of Journalists, for instance, who seek a ‘no platform for fascists’ policy, are often asked: well, if you’re against a party whose words might turn to violence, why do you oppose the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein (as the NUJ has always done)? Is not Sinn Fein committed to violence indistinguishable in logic from that of the fascists? Here the answer must go deeper. Sinn Fein represents something quite different from the aims of the fascists. Their aim is a democratic republic of Ireland. Gerry Adams, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, supports the use of force as part of a wider struggle for freedom. Fascists use force as part of a wider means of denying elementary democratic rights.

THE DISTINCTION brings us to the core of the argument: the real reason for fascism and the master it serves. To liberals, fascists appear as a clutch of racist thugs with no real power who can, as a recent Independent editorial pretended, easily be seen off by liberal responses of fair play, a fair hearing and (perhaps) a fair crack of the whip. Certainly, the tiny numbers of fascists in Britain at present hardly seem a threat comparable to the major organisations in France or Italy. As long as this is the face of British fascism, runs the argument, as long as the fascists at the height of their popularity can muster only 30 candidates for 3,000 seats, who cares?

The answer is that the history of this century proves only too clearly that fascism can grow very quickly in periods of social and economic upheaval. In 1928 Hitler’s Nazis gained just 2.5 percent of the vote in Germany. By 1930 their vote had risen to 6.4 million, an increase of 800 percent. Today the Thatcher experiment of the 1980s is in ruins. So is the Social Democratic experiment in France, Germany and Italy. Everywhere capitalists are losing confidence in the resilience of their system. Organised labour, weakened in the 1980s, is still on the defensive against the capitalist attacks.

The single common aim of fascism in the 1930s was to break the strength and spirit of organised labour: to pave the way for uninterrupted profiteering by the people who own the means of production. Though its shock troops were the lumpen proletariat and the lower middle class, fascism’s real master was capital. When at least sections of the capitalists lost all hope of proceeding through the democratic system and the trade unions it had conceded under pressure in the past, it looked round for a battering ram to dispose of both. Big financiers and capitalists don’t like the thought of a civil war, such as the one which brought fascism to power in Spain, or the slaughter of 6 million Jewish people in circumstances of unimaginable barbarism in the Holocaust. Yet, deep in the pit of economic crisis, they will tolerate, arm and finance anything, however horrible, to defeat their competitors and keep their coffers full of their ill-gotten gains.

This certain knowledge – that fascism is the last resort of big business in crisis – utterly destroys the complacent rhetoric of the Independent, the BBC and others about the menace of fascism today. It is not just that they ignore the hideous advances of fascism in France, Italy and Germany in recent years. There is the same sort of peril too in Britain, which has none of the imperial fat which sustained its rulers and their free speech and democracy in the 1930s.

Those rulers are not committed to democracy. Nor are their media. In the 1930s large hunks of the media championed the fascists who were determined to destroy it. In the United States the huge combine of papers run by William Randolph Hearst campaigned enthusiastically for fascism. So did the Rothermere press in Britain. In August 1938, just after Mussolini had promulgated his own special law banning Jews from public office, Ward Price, special correspondent of the Daily Mail, wrote:

‘Mussolini is an Elizabethan. Allowing for the altered conditions, he stands to modern Italy as Raleigh and Drake did in Queen Elizabeth’s day. He incarnates the new spirit which has possessed his nation, and between the Italy of the early 20th century and the England of the early 17th there is much spiritual resemblance – the same internal national pride, the same unbounded optimism, the same fierce sense of opening opportunity, the same quick sensitive temper, the same tendency to recklessness, the same full-blooded heat of a nation that feels its youth and strength.’

When Mosley’s anti-Semitic thugs organised in 1934, they were cheered on by the same Daily Mail, whose headline read: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’! Today the Daily Mail is owned by the same Rothermere family.

Those of us who see the world from the bottom up, and care most about the freedom of the press, understand the danger from fascism far more than the millionaires who own the newspapers. Free speech for fascists is an awesome threat to free speech. That is why we have to treat the blackshirts of today with the same implacable opposition that they met when they tried their intimidatory racist marches in London’s East End in the 1930s.

BUT THE ARGUMENT cannot end there. In his book Fascism and Big Business, the French socialist Daniel Guerin warns against simply being ‘anti’-fascist. On its own, opposition to free speech for fascists will not rid us of fascism. The roots of the argument ‘the blacks are taking our jobs’ are buried deep in mass unemployment; the roots of the argument ‘the blacks are taking our homes’ in the monstrous priorities of a society which builds millions of square feet of empty office space round the corner from mass homelessness, overcrowding and slums.

We are against arguing with organised Nazi parties, whose aim is to take away our right to argue, but we are very much in favour of arguing with those who may prove susceptible to their propaganda. The Nazis turn desperate people’s anger onto other desperate people with different coloured skins. The anger turns into racial violence and then to more despair. Socialists’ aim is to turn that anger against the landlords and tycoons and their dupes in the town halls and parliaments. Black people build homes just as white people do. In a sensible society both white and black would build the houses they need and there would be homes for everyone.

In the 1930s, as in the 1970s, the opponents of the British fascists confronted Mosley’s marches, picketed their meetings, hassled their appearances on the media, and, at the same time, campaigned against landlords, tycoons and media moguls. The combination worked both times, and it can work again.

Last updated on 15 April 2017