Revo: like turkeys voting for Christmas
This year’s NUS conference voted to support a motion (moved by Workers Power youth group Revo) calling for NUS to lobby the government for a ban of far-right websites such as Redwatch. Vicky T, an anti-fascist and libertarian communist, who was also a delegate from Manchester University at NUS conference, explains why she opposed this motion:
Like turkeys voting for Christmas
Why NUS conference should not have proposed a ban of Redwatch (and why the Left was wrong to support it)
On the closing day of NUS conference 2008 a motion proposing to lobby the government for a ban of websites including Redwatch, Noncewatch and Stormfront was easily passed. I voted against it. Yes, as a militant anti-fascist, as a Communist and as a keen advocate of No Platform, I voted against it. I believe in freedom of speech; I do not believe in state censorship. The majority of the student Left at conference supported this motion, in what I would argue shows a remarkable bout of short-sightedness.
Several people have suggested I might be unclear as to what Redwatch is- let me demonstrate once and for all that I am not. Redwatch is a website containing images and personal details (including addresses and telephone numbers) of so-called “reds”- communists and socialists, peace campaigners, human rights activists, anti-fascists and anarchists, even children. The people featured on Redwatch’s pages can be subjected to harassment and, in some cases, violence. Not wanting the state to ban Redwatch, however, is not by proxy an endorsement of its existence.
I am on Redwatch. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. Being on Redwatch is certainly not a “badge of honour”, as one speaker against motion 802 suggested. To even think this is fallacy of the highest order; in fact it entirely negates the serious violent attacks that Redwatch has inspired, such as the stabbing of Merseyside anti-fascist Alec McFadden. Redwatch is a serious threat, certainly, and yet we as the Left have to stay away from dangerous kneejerk censorship and the short sightedness it necessarily entails. The fight against fascism must be embedded in our schools, our colleges and universities, our places of work, our trade unions, our homes… Not in the governmental policing of the internet.
Nor is this a no-Platform issue, as our NUS VP Welfare attempted to portray it in her speech in favour. Many of us who voted against motion 802 actively defend No Platform in our universities, precisely because we understand that it in itself has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech. This does not mean that we have failed to notice that those behind Redwatch, absolutely and unequivocally, instigate violent attacks. However, we also know that where the BNP is elected, racist attacks increase dramatically. And yet we would not dream of calling for a state ban of the BNP.
I am not a lawyer, so I can’t explain the ins and outs of Redwatch’s legality. But I do know this. However abhorrent those who run websites like this are, they are not stupid. They know how to avoid prosecution; they know exactly how to get away with what they do, how to operate multiple servers at home and overseas. So how would the government ban them? Well, in the same way that the USA Patriot Act infringes the rights of every single American, legislation to ban websites like Redwatch would have to be formulated in a vague, catch-all kind of way. What would start out as part of the fight against fascism, would surely escalate into an attack on all those taking a stand against the state; when a government starts censoring, it does not distinguish between enemies. Between Right and Left. For once the “slippery slope” style argument is actually pretty bloody strong.
There are historical examples to back me up. The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was established in 1934, allegedly to control Fascist activity. For three years it kept to its original purpose- and then it turned on the communists. In Britain, laws brought in against Oswald Mosley’s black shirts were widely used against the left and the workers’ movement.
Let’s step aside from the traditional hyperbole of the Left for a moment, and think practically. To ban Redwatch, Noncewatch and the like, would surely require a change in the law. How exactly would the new legislation be worded? Would it only catch those who publicise details across the internet, for the pure and simple intention of fascist-motivated violent attacks? Or would it severely hamper the right to protest of other groups, such as those who legitimately target corporations with letter-writing campaigns, or organise a picket line outside an arms manufacturers? This type of “harassment” is – rightly – deemed acceptable by most.
We have to put any proposed censorship in the broader context of what is happening in Britain today. We all know that legislation to extend the time of detention without trial, for instance, will not effectively counter terrorism in the UK; we also know exactly who will suffer under such legislation- Muslims, ethnic minorities, Britain’s most vulnerable communities. To say otherwise would be to put a ridiculous amount of trust in the British government, an institution which is, as we well know, scarcely accountable to its ordinary citizens. The erosion of civil liberties in the name of counter-terrorism is widely condemned by the Left (and by wider society). And yet if we don’t trust the government with detention limits, why on earth would we trust them with policing the internet?
If Redwatch is banned, what does the student Left think will happen next? It’s obvious. Another site just like it will appear. And another. And another. Perhaps it will move underground. Personal details of anti-fascists, peace campaigners, LGBT rights activists and others will be circulated via an email ring, while comrade Singh (Revolution) who proposed Motion 802, will probably be amongst the victims of his own foolishness. How many of us belong to groups calling for a class war? How many of us have websites calling for a revolution- peaceful if possible, violent if necessary? How would websites belonging to groups like Antifa and others who call for direct (violent) action against fascists fare?
For surely we would be next on the government’s hit list. This is not scare mongering- it’s common sense. Let’s face it: the Far Right, the Fascists, are perfectly capable of working outside the law. The state ban of Redwatch would scarcely hinder them: but it would be a thorn in the side of the Left for years.
So ask yourself this: how long would it be, once the precedence had been set, before the laws brought in for the fascists were used against the communists? The socialists? The anarchists? All revolutionaries? For the Far Left to support state censorship – and let’s not beat around the bush here; this motion was calling for that – is, as one delegate put it, like turkeys voting for Christmas. Political integrity must always be at the forefront of our movement. This means we cannot afford to support whatever happens to sound good on the day, whatever appeals to popular support on that occasion. Fascism must be overcome by anti-fascists, by a strong grassroots movement, and not by a New Labour government. These people are not our, and never can be, our ally. The state needs less powers, not even more.