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No Platform: Free speech for all?

(April 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review 86, April 1986, pp. 11–12.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

RECENT events in the student world have thrown many socialists into confusion. This confusion centres round the application of the National Union of Students’ ‘no platform’ policy. In the past months this policy has been used to deny a platform to a whole range of people whose ideas are very far from the original intention of the ban.

So Tory ministers have been attacked in the name of ‘no platform’, and in a bizarre twist to the policy last month, a black students’ society at South Bank Poly was ‘no platformed’ for listening to tapes of the American black nationalist leader, Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Semitic statements.

These bannings have at best caused confusion and have at worst led to allegations that socialists will try to ban everyone with whom they do not agree.

It is worthwhile in such circumstances to consider what was the idea behind no platform originally, and how it developed in this particular direction.

The slogan ‘no platform for racists and fascists’ was raised inside the student movement as early as 1973 in response to the growing toehold of the organised extreme right and fascists. The argument behind it was very specific. Fascist and racist organisations had a particular aim: to organise against black people and other racial minorities and drive them off the campuses – and of course ultimately drive them out of the country altogether. Their arguments were not based on rational debate, but on race hatred.

The experience of fascism in Germany and other countries before the war demonstrated that fascists could not be treated as simply another political party. They would use democratic channels to build their support, and then suppress all forms of political opposition – not simply left wing organisations, but trade unions, campaigning groups and so on.

It was therefore argued that it was not enough to challenge such organisations to debate – they had to be prevented from gaining a platform to propagate their ideas.

It was also extended to those racists who were organised in groups like the Monday Club. These had very similar ideas to the fascists and were also prepared to organise along racist lines. The policy was never extended to those who simply held some racist ideas – probably the majority of most trade union or student union members. The way to deal with those ideas – of say, support for immigration controls, or for the general line of the popular press – was through open and democratic debate. Here socialists could hopefully win at least some of the arguments against racism.

The organised racists and fascists were to be restricted – denied free speech – precisely to protect the democratic rights of the majority. An NUS pamphlet published at the time explained why very well:

‘We reject the view that the restriction of fascist organisations in this way is to deny all freedom of expression; our aim is to make the ideal of freedom of assembly and expression meaningful in reality. To turn the problem of “free speech” from a practical into an abstract question is to jeopardise the position of the labour movement and its defence of democratic rights, and to allow fascists and racists to shelter under the democratic freedoms when their ultimate aim is to destroy such freedoms.’

The argument had a certain amount of success. ‘No platform’ meant stopping the fascists from marching where possible, and preventing them from holding rallies and meetings. Sizeable counter demonstrations were mobilised: in 1973 and ’74 at Red Lion Square in London, in 1974 in Leicester and in 1977 in Wood Green. These and many others culminated in the successful mass mobilisation against the National Front in Lewisham, and the subsequent founding of the Anti-Nazi League.

By 1979 the NF had become a spent force, on the margins of the political scene, and the argument about fighting the Nazis was hardly a central one.

But, although the NUS leadership was by now embarrassed by its no platform policy (removing its commitment to stopping the fascists ‘by any means necessary’ in the late seventies), the policy itself didn’t disappear, and in fact was extended by the early eighties to be not only against unspecified ‘racists’ but against ‘sexists’ as well.

This was the result of two things. Firstly, there was the growing awareness among a layer of young people of the racist and sexist nature of capitalist society. This meant that quite large groups of students could feel very strongly about the issues and want to take quite radical action against them.

Secondly, however, there was a growth in the level of tokenism about how to deal with the issues. By the early eighties, NUS conferences were riddled with points of order objecting to remarks supposedly discriminating against women, blacks, gays, disabled people and so on. Most of the objections were trivial and a few downright stupid. Nearly all could have been dealt with by argument, not no platform.

But the tokenism was a reflection of the tokenism towards the various movements that we have witnessed over recent years, and which even Kinnock is often happy to encourage. It went hand in hand with a general move to the right in the student movement and so has become even more meaningless. Despite the no platform policy, there are more college rags, with their racist and sexist magazines, than there were ten years ago.

So the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

To some extent the same is true of Tory ministers and MPs. They have horrible racist and sexist ideas, and are responsible for all sorts of anti-working class measures. But again, their ideas can be defeated politically, and many Tory students can be won to seeing that those ideas are wrong – if socialists know how to argue with them.

That is not at all to say we don’t organise protests against such people. These are often very successful. But a protest against Tory minister Waddington at Manchester, or Victoria Gillick in Sheffield, should not be graced with the title of ‘no platform’.

Racists and sexists should not go unchallenged in union meetings. But the way we challenge again has to be sensitive and not just a blanket ban.

Understanding this makes it easier for us to understand the tactics that have caused so much trouble in recent months. We have to make a distinction between the organised fascists and extreme racists – like Harrington at North London Poly, or the Tory MPs Harvey Proctor and John Carlisle (who have extreme-right links) – and mainstream Tory MPs. We deny the right of free speech to those who want to destroy free speech altogether.

There are of course situations where socialists might oppose the right of others to have a platform (for example where counter-revolutionaries are plotting to sabotage a revolution; or even where scabs are trying to mobilise a back to work movement). But those examples do not apply in the present situation.

Even with racists and fascists we have to adopt tactics which fit. There is no point in fifty students storming the stage where a right-winger is speaking if they are incapable of mobilising wider numbers. Socialists have to think in situations like this that many people will oppose these right-wingers – so how do we get them involved in the maximum activity?

This is important both in terms of the protest itself and in terms of the aftermath. At places where small numbers have taken direct action they have all too often found themselves threatened with victimisation. A large demonstration at the time is much greater protection against such threats.

With racist lecturers, students etc., the campaign has of necessity to be much longer and has to be as wide as possible. The Harrington campaign was successful both because it was based on very militant tactics and because it involved far wider numbers of students than simply the existing left, including the philosophy students on Harrington’s course.

Similar campaigns against a racist lecturer at Bristol university, and a fascist student at Plymouth need to get similar levels of support if they are to succeed. And they need to mobilise round specific aims – it is no good including a shopping list of demands, including the total abolition of racism in society, in a campaign to get rid of a racist lecturer. The wider issues should be taken up in Socialist Worker Student Society meetings, in Socialist Worker and Socialist Worker Review.

It is also worth remembering that the no platform policy has always been aimed at those who wanted to maintain oppression inside this society. We have always to distinguish between the racism of the oppressor and that of the oppressed. That is why the banning of the black society at South Bank is wrong. We have to argue that the ideas of Farrakhan are wrong, and often reactionary. He is totally misguided to see the oppression of blacks in America stemming even in part from another oppressed group, the Jews. American blacks are even more misguided to believe that Farrakhan has any answers to the problems of black workers.

But he cannot be equated with the racists inside the National Front, who want to deny the rights of all oppressed groups.

The argument about no platform is unlikely to go away in the next month or two. The NUS leadership are trying to reverse the present no platform policy. They are supported by those like the SDP who are already campaigning round the question in colleges like Lancaster.

Reversal of the policy would be a defeat for the left. It must fight to maintain the right of students to deny racists and fascists a platform. There are signs that the executive will not have an easy ride on the question. Even at Oxford University, which held a recent referendum on the subject, over 2,000 students voted to keep the no platform policy although it was defeated. Local campaigns have often been very successful, and show little sign of going away.

But the policy will only be defended successfully if its supporters avoid two things. The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as the defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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