This is the last of three reviews I’ve been writing looking at books on the far right published during the lockdown. I’ve previously reviewed Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers, and Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s Reactionary Democracy, today it’s Evan Smith’s new book No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech.
I do need to make a declaration of interest at the start: I’ve known Evan for years, heard him speak at events in the UK, and was one of a dozen people he names in his acknowledgments as having read the book in whole or in part. I don’t think any of that influences my views on his book, but it would certainly prevent me from posting a simple encomium (“just go out and buy this book now”) – although of course I hope you do…
Rather than simply review his book, I thought I’d use as a chance to jot down my own views of no platform today – and I’ll try to show how they emerge in dialogue with Evan’s book.
No Platform follows a broadly chronological structure. The first sixty or so pages look at Britain prior to the evolution of a language of “no platform” in the early 1970s. What Smith argues is that long before this happened, the left had developed a practice of seeking to close of opportunities for fascists to organise and to speak. The clearest possible instance of this is in the late 1940s, when the postwar 43 Group set itself the task of preventing any postwar fascist from speaking.
Stepping away from his account for a moment, to really make sense of how the 43 Group worked you need to imagine this in practice. We’re talking about a period before television, when most people would get their news from the radio, the press or perhaps even cinema. Entry to all these media was utterly closed off to the far right, as indeed to the far left and to religious minorities, but particularly the right because this was after the Second World War in which hundreds of thousands of British people had died fighting fascism. While beneath the formal world of public debate, that there was a busy tradition of informal debate, with dozens of towns, and urban markets in which people would literally just stand on a wooden box and speak to the public. In 1947-8 in particular a number of of British fascists were able to build up huge audiences in this way: hundreds in Bristol and Brighton, thousands in South Hackney’s Ridley Road market.
Fifty years later, Morris Beckman (the historian of the 43 Group), published a memoir which described the group as repeatedly knocking over any fascist “speaker’s platform,” which they did zealously.
In other words, no platform in its original form was a narrow and specific tactic limited strictly to fascists (not Conservatives or other allies of fascism). It was intelligence-driven. It was based in a particular context: not universities, but the street. And when speaking of “platforms”, the 43 Group were almost inconceivably literal. The tactic emerged in a Britain where, if it was possible to shut down 20 platforms on a good afternoon, then to all intents and purposes, Mosley’s fascists would have no other opportunity to speak to any group of people publicly at all.
If this was the historical practice of No Platform, its theory emerges somewhere quite different – in debates on the university left, twenty-five years later. These are the subject of Smith’s next fifty pages or so.
Before coming to them it is worth noting that there is seemingly no transmission mechanism between this first period of no platforming and what would come later. The people who formulated No Platform in the early 1970s came from a specific intellectual tradition (the International Marxist Group and Trotskyism). They might have had some knowledge of the Battle of Cable Street, which would be commemorated in a huge mural just a few years later (and a memoir published by the CP’s Phil Piratin was widely read in the 1970s) – but they probably wouldn’t have heard of the 43 Group, as that was associated with different left-wing traditions (Jewish and Communist) and didn’t figure to any meaningful extent at all in the discussions of student anti-fascists until the Group’s rediscovery, with the publication of Morris Beckman’s book, twenty years later.
What Smith show is that in this interregnum between about 1950 and 1974, there were numerous occasions when centre-right university bodies would court publicity by inviting speakers further to the right, defending the invitations on free speech grounds, while the left protested the invitations: Mosley was invited to Cambridge and Oxford, etc. In the late 1960s, there were protests following invitations given to Enoch Powell and the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who was seeking to reestablish a link between racial difference (genetics) and IQ.
Smith’s distinctive contribution to understanding no platform is the discovery that this slogan can be traced back to a single source: a front-page article in Red Mole magazine (the newspaper of the IMG) published on 18 September 1972: “No Platform for Racists”.
At its spring conference in May 1974, the National Union of Students – through the intervention of its Secretary Steve Parry (a supporter of the Communist Party and the Broad left) passed a motion, committing the NUS to a policy of no platform for racists and fascists. Ever since then, Smith writes, despite one or two brief reverses, this has been NUS policy. The Union has had a consistent policy supporting groups who oppose inviting racists and fascists to speak on university platforms and that this is turn has given moral encouragement to any number of anti-racist and anti-fascist students. Their protests have popularised the concept of no platform. Meanwhile the phrase has spread intentionally and has become part of the anti-fascist lexicon, in Smith’s Australia, in the US, and elsewhere.
Smith’s focus is on the history of no platform (whereas my own interest is much more in the politics of it).
From my perspective, what really strikes me is that there were two distinct justifications given for no platform. If you wanted to be specific you could call them the “IS” and the “IMG” approaches, but in saying this the reality is that there were different opinions in each group, and plenty of people outside either of them who expressed both views.
In the first of these approaches, no platform was a tactic to be employed strictly against fascists. It was based on what I have called elsewhere “the anti-fascist wager” ie an analysis that fascism had greater potential for growth and for violence than other kinds of right-wing politics (even than, say, armed conservatism) and that unless the fascists were silenced there was a real and actual risk that at some point they would conquer, and would remove free speech rights for everyone else.
In the second of these approaches, no platform was a tactic to be employed against any form of racist. It was based on the idea that racism was a kind of politics which asserted on the superior moral worth of one individual over another, that it was hurtful and caused suffering, and that the closing down of racist speech was necessary in order to make universities a space in which everyone could flourish.
Here is a speech by Steve Parry, the NUS President in 1974, and an article by him, both cited in Smith’s book.
(1) “Did reasoned argument stop the fascists lef by Mosley in the Eat End in the 1930s? Of course it did not. Had reasoned argument stopped Colin Jordan and his cronies in the Union Movement having armed camps in the Britain and working with ex-Nazis in Germany?”
(2) “One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract … In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race.”
If you look carefully at these approaches, the former suggests that No Platform remains (as it was in the 1940s or for IS in the 1970s) a tactic to be strictly limited to overt and recognisable fascists; whereas the latter portrays it as a tactic of much wider applicability.
In Smith’s account, the tension between these two approaches is a creative one – it doesn’t matter if people moved from one justification to another, or if the use of no platform was wide at the start and has widened over time.
Moving away from his book to commentary, I’m not at all sure I agree.
The historian in me would have to acknowledge that the ambiguity of 1970s No Platform was unresolved by the end of the decade, and that this vagueness caused no practical difficulties to Rock Against Racism or the Anti-Nazi League.
If anything, this amibiguity was positive in 1976-9, in that it enabled a generation of anti-racists and anti-fascists to defeat what was a complex, dynamic and ideologically unstable opponent (the National Front) which was characterised by a ongoing faction fight between two major wings, a fascist and a populist one (this isn’t to fall into anachronism: the non-Hitlerite wing of the NF really did call themselves “Populists”). It is a good thing that the left didn’t get caught up in worrying whether the NF were really fascists or which justification was needed to oppose them.
The problem has come about with the history since. The dominant approach on the British and American left since about 2000 has been to choose the second (“anti-racist”) approach to no platform.
The danger is not just one of incoherence. Part of the problem, in this model of no platform, is that we (the left) require a good faith response from others to our right. Even in the simplest example: a right-wing student group has invited someone further to the right to speak. A strong left will hope that university administrators silently tolerates their campaign, and does not call the police on them. A weak left might even petition the same administrators to do the banning on their behalf. Either kind of left hopes that a group of administrators who have acquired a taste for banning will stop there and will not then silence the left, Muslims, etc.
The problems can be seen both inside the university (Smith’s real interest) and outside. Amongst the earliest groups of people to be prosecuted under Race Relations’ legislation when those laws were first passed were black opponents of inequality. In the 1980s, you saw the first attempts to exclude transwomen, sex workers, and supporters of BDSM from feminist events on the grounds that these women were – in the exclusionary logic of the likes of Janice Raymond or Sheila Jeffreys – somehow male supremacists.
Or, to take a more recent example, when Jeremy Corbyn was accused of anti-semitism the political centre was turning against the far left the weapons we had made, an argument that the suffering oppressed should have a veto over who could speak in public.
The anti-fascist / 43 Group / IS approach to no platform sought, by contrast, to disengage from “hate speech” arguments, and argued for a general toleration of free speech, albeit with the specific exception of fascism.
While this approach would avoid many of the dangers I have set out, it does of course have its own difficulties today, when faced with a right which generally does not take part in armed attacks on its political opponents, and appears to most people to have given up on the old fascist ambition of the creation of a one-party state.
Here, I believe, the principled approach is to maintain something no platform but to use it more sparingly than the left has – when groups behave like fascists (i.e. in their use of political violence) we can employ it. But it should not be a general measure.
The above thoughts have taken me a long way from Smith’s book.
What I should say is that through the final 100 or so pages of No Platform, Smith gives a very large number of examples of no platform campaigns, in Britain and elsewhere. They include protests in 1981 against the musical act Hot Gossip, calls to deplatform SPUC and the’pro-life’ campaigner Victoria Gillick, and bans on homophobic speakers in the late 1980s, immediately prior to the introduction of Section 28.
He cites critics of no platforming from within the NUS, some in good faith (eg a widely circulated article by Lindsey German which attempted to claw back against the second model of no platform in the 1980s) and some made in bad faith (eg the opposition of the Revolutionary Communist Party – today’s Spiked – to the 1984 attempt to exclude Patrick Harrington a leader of the National Front, from North London Polytechnic). The Harrington affair was in the newspapers for over a year and was a clear instance of the hostile reaction of administrators to which I have referred: the Poly called in the police and courts on left-wing protesters.
In his conclusion, Smith insists on the continuing validity of no platform as a tactic, insisting that it (or at least its 1970s incarnation) remains the appropriate response to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. “Prejudice needs to be challenged – in the electoral sphere, in the streets, online, in the workplace, and in our communities, in activist circles, and in our educational institutions.”
As I hope I’ve made clear, my criticism of Smith’s book aren’t in any way intended to diminish the research he has done, the quality of the examples he gives, or his project of explaining the historical roots of no platform. In showing exactly where the idea of no platform comes from, he has done a wide group of historians and activists a real service.
My question is about the use of the tactic today – how does it apply in a world where the people enabling far-right speech include some of the most popular video bloggers on youtube? Is it any longer the right approach to call for people to be silenced where they cause distress to oppressed groups; can we sustain the distinctions on which that notion of the oppressed is based, especially in the context of online culture wars which pit different groups of oppressed people against each other? Or, if the focus in future is going to be more on using no platform against fascist-type groups – how do we apply the tactic to a far right whose politics are significantly unlike either fascism or conservatism?
[For anyone who has enjoyed this post; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-authoritarians-and-covid-19-tickets-105000497314]