No platform and the BNP
Is ‘no platforming’ an unshakable principle or a tactic? Ted North reports on the discussion among Communist Students
The February 16 conference of Communist Students featured a debate on fascism and the tactics needed to defeat it.
It was introduced by Ben Klein, who argued that we must start from the premise of independent working class politics and the need for tactical flexibility. Tactics must flow from principles. He suggested the left needed to face up to the changes which have taken place on the political right over the last 10 to 15 years.
In particular, comrade Klein took issue with the no-platform ‘tactic’, which many comrades on the left have turned into an unshakable principle. He admitted that, whilst no-platforming can be a successful tactic at times, it should not be our only one. To defeat ‘fascism’, the revolutionary left needs to rearticulate coherent Marxist politics, not follow the popular frontist logic of campaigns such as Unite Against Fascism. Such campaigns are premised upon tailing liberal sentiment and follow a flawed logic of calling for a vote for just about anyone, as long as it is not the British National Party.
Comrade Klein stressed that, as he has outlined in articles over the past year or so, we should not rule out debating with the far right, and, although he was not arguing that this is appropriate in the here and now, we should also not rule out organising debates against far-right or fascist groups a priori (as, for example, German communists did in the early 1920s).
The basis of our anti-fascist work must be placed in the context of a declining capitalism. The ideas of the BNP are given credence by the widespread belief (as expressed in the Daily Mail, etc) that immigrants are to blame for poor housing and a lack of job opportunities. The role of Marxists is to show that such problems stem from the capitalist system. Much of the existing left, said comrade Klein, suffers from headless chicken politics and fails to appreciate that our main enemy is the British state. History shows that sections of the capitalist class turn to fascism in desperation when their system is riven with crisis and they can no longer rule in the old way.
Comrade Klein suggested that the BNP is ‘fascist’ in a similar way to which the Socialist Workers Party is ‘revolutionary Marxist’ or ‘communist’. At the core, the cadre of the BNP are from a fascist background, just as the core of the Socialist Workers Party come from the Cliffite tradition. But their political practice has changed. In the same way that the SWP has embraced class-collaborationist ‘unpopular front’ politics, the BNP’s turn to suits and elections must be recognised by the left, and must therefore influence our tactics.
In the debate that followed, the range of opinions on the question indicated the fairly considerable differences that exist. Tina Becker argued that much of the electoral support of the BNP stems from alienated working class people – people whom we should try to win to our politics and not condemn as “scum on the estates”, as former Anti-Nazi League leader Julie Waterson so famously did (see Weekly Worker May 15 2003).
After all, in the European parliament elections 2004, the BNP achieved 4.9% of the vote and now has around 50 local councillors. If all these voters were somehow born fascists and incapable of change, the prospects for our project of human liberation would look pretty dire. Debating with the leaders of the BNP could be one way of exposing the poverty of their ideas. After all we can easily show that it is not immigrants who are to blame for poor housing conditions, unemployment, etc.
Comrade Klein also emphasised that, in this current period, he was not arguing to grant the BNP a platform but rather to assess how we respond when they win seats or make significant gains.
Comrade Bill Jefferies of Permanent Revolution defended the no-platform tactic. He said it was easy to criticise characters such as the SWP’s Weyman Bennett, but we should look at the “revolutionary tradition of no platforming”. He attacked a Workers Power comrade, who a few years ago had taken part in an election hustings with a BNP member. As an aside, had Jeffries and others not been expelled from the Workers Power group to form PR, they would have been unable to publicly criticise this decision, as open debate is a breach of its bureaucratic centralism.
He argued that slogans such as “rights for whites” were code words for racist attacks on ethnic minorities. In response to comrade Becker, comrade Jefferies pointed out that the low turnout in council elections meant that when the BNP won a seat it did not mean a majority of the electorate were sympathetic to fascist ideas. Jefferies characterised comrade Klein’s argument as boiling down to “going to the pub with fascists for a debate”. Nearly all comrades present were unanimous that this was a gross misrepresentation of Ben’s position.
Nick Jones discussed the question of whether or not the BNP were fascist, and argued that comrade Klein’s definition was too limited, with its focus on street fighting squads, etc. He referred to differences between fascism in its Italian and German variants. Chris Strafford argued that the BNP maintains a focus on violent attacks – for example, on gay pride marches in Birmingham and on left activists.
New CS member comrade Paul argued that giving the far right any platform would give legitimacy to their ideas. David Broder attacked this notion and outlined the way the SWP and much of the rest of the existing left not only do not debate, but fail to highlight any kind of left alternative. He characterised such a view as saying ‘fascism is bad’ and not much else.
Comrade James Turley, in a nuanced contribution, suggested that, considering how lightly fascism has always travelled programmatically, it is not possible to debate ‘programmatic’ points with its members. In contrast to the hardened fascists of the BNP core, comrade Turley argued that the left needs to focus on the organisation’s periphery, where rightwing attitudes often do reflect concerns about jobs and houses, etc. In contrast, the central cadre was defined by consistent, if unorganised, racist violence. He suggested therefore that the BNP had not abandoned street fighting, but merely changed tactics.
Comrade Hussein of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign argued that much of the growth of the far right was because the left has not meaningfully challenged the Labour Party, with its privatisations, attacks on free education and other elements of the welfare state. He argued that members of Respect-SWP were rarely working class, and that when such groups stand in elections they did not do so on council estates, but concentrated on affluent areas. The BNP, he suggested, has grown as a result of the lack of democracy in Britain and alienation from the mainstream parties. Areas that the left in Britain has failed to focus on. Instead they focused too much on muslims, he argued.
In his second contribution, Bill Jefferies attacked comrades Klein and Becker for suggesting the BNP was not really fascist any more. He also sought to clarify the no-platform tactic, which, he stressed, did not mean beating up people at random. The comrade repeated his view that behind the suits the BNP has changed little, and that its growth over the last few years reflects the failure of the left and the disastrous tactics of UAF.
Summing up, comrade Klein sought to draw concrete political points out of the debate. In the example of the Oxford Union debate, he argued no platform was the wrong tactic. This does not mean we are for giving fascists a platform, but where they have already won a base we need to attack their ideas.
In relation to the argument over defining fascism, he suggested that the BNP cannot be summed up in a single word. Although he does not regard the current political practice of the BNP as fascist, he did argue that things could change quickly and that our political approach must be able to recognise this and respond accordingly.
Simply throwing around the term ‘fascist’ willy-nilly would not get us anywhere. The fundamental focus had to be the rearticulation of Marxist politics and developing a programme not only around issues such as housing and jobs, but around how we are ruled. This means a perspective of organising the working class to become the ruling class.