Far right extremist Tommy Robinson's public profile has grown rapidly in recent months as mainstream commentators have fallen over each other attempting to defend his right to 'free speech'. But Conter editor Jonathan Rimmer says that platforming Tommy and his followers is reckless. Are the left anti-free speech? He argues the opposite...
One day, hopefully not in the distant future, there will come a point when the fiercest advocates of unfettered classical liberalism will come to recognise and regret their role in enabling the far-right extremist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. The man better known as Tommy Robinson, who co-founded the Islamophobic English Defence League and used to be a member of the fascist British National Party, has been lionised as a free speech martyr in sections of the mainstream press after he was jailed for contempt of court last year. Some commentators claimed their objections stemmed purely from concerns about freedom of the press and how the law is applied in such instances. But many more have used his perceived ill treatment, as well as the various counter-protests held in response to the “Free Tommy” campaign that followed, to tar anti-fascists and left wing activists as intolerant authoritarians who hate free speech.
Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill argued this week that the “the Tommy Robinson phenomenon is a product not of too much liberty, but of too much censorship” and that the left “made” him. Rod Liddle, columnist in the supposedly moderate, centre-right publication The Times, suggested the racist hatemonger “might even be right”. Admittedly, calling Liddle any kind of liberal might be a stretch, but the argument that racists, fascists and hate preachers should be permitted a platform so we might 'defeat their ideas' has become depressingly commonplace.
In an era where a demagogic nationalist sits in the White House, liberals are increasingly fond of invoking Evelyn Beatrice Hall's famous maxim (incorrectly ascribed to Voltaire) – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – to justify their inability to oppose racial hatred. The truth is that this proverb always has been and always will be predicated on a lie, and it's not anti-free speech to say as much.
When the likes of Robinson and his followers attempt to inflame hatred towards minorities, anti-fascists will naturally argue that we oppose them with direct action because it's important we defend and stand with targeted communities at the first point of call. This approach is fundamentally correct and has been proven to work repeatedly over the past century – Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and its successors, for example, were defeated at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, defeated again by protesters disrupting their meetings in 1947, and defeated again in the 1960s.
However, the action we take must also be rooted in a conviction that stems from an understanding of how fascists weaponise the perceived issues of the day. Mosley, like Robinson, was also fond of using the veil of free speech to advance his agenda, and he whipped up his supporters using many of the same methods. Notably, Mosley stopped using the term “fascist” after the Second World War due to its unpopularity. Painting such figures as comical hooligans who only operate outside the realms of acceptable mainstream discourse is to misunderstand how they operate. Historically, fascists have only ever been successful or attained power by legal means. It's simply not enough to deploy rational debate to combat Robinson's ideas – he demands the right to platforms so he can advocate stripping others of the same rights down the line.
Affording Robinson such platforms is a dead end because he ultimately has no interest in participating in the liberal democratic framework in any meaningful way. Fascism is oblivious to reason because it is its enemy. It's emotion-driven and appeals to blood and soil nationalist instinct first and foremost. That doesn't mean that violence should necessarily be our immediate response, but from Cable Street to Charlottesville working class self-defence has proven necessary time and again. As one activist cited in Mark Bray's excellent 'Anti-Fascist Handbook' puts it: “You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don't have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don't have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don't have to fight them with guns.”
The far-right like to frame the anti-fascist movement, and the broader left, as being elitist and dominated by privileged millenials (Robinson, a landlord and business owner, is meanwhile portrayed as a working class hero). But when push comes to shove, it's the working class that's targeted and the working class that fights back. A few weeks ago, Robinson's thuggish supporters assaulted trade unionists after one of their London rallies. This week, cowardly masked fascists attacked a socialist bookshop and theatened staff. When the Scottish Defence League tried to stage a rally in Glasgow a few weeks ago, they were sent packing by a group of anti-fascist football fans.
These extreme groups partially feel emboldened because they're given space to spout their beliefs in the mainstream press. Even if you set aside the fact Nigel Farage has been asked to appear on the flagship debate programme Question Time an unprecedented number of occasions, the BBC has a shameful record when it comes to platforming the far-right. Robinson himself has appeared on The Big Questions, the Daily Politics and others, while Newsnight has invited his supporters to make their case on various occasions (including this week). In 2012, they even commissioned a documentary, 'When Tommy Met Mo', which saw British Muslim scholar Mo Ansar attempt to engage with Robinson on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism. It didn't work. Years later, Robinson declared he supported Trump's Muslim ban and suggested Britain adopt the same policy.
So, what's the answer? How do we equip activists to tackle freedom of speech when it's deployed by the far right to justify their bigotry? Writer Darren McGarvey identifies “the issue of freedom of speech” as the “left's biggest weakness”, argues people “find allies elsewhere when they are exiled for thought crimes” and that YouTube, a platform the right dominate, has become the “main marketplace for ideas”. In an obvious sense, this marketplace metaphor is flawed because it assumes that everyone in society is capable of articulating their free speech from equal standing regardless of class, race or gender (which is patently false under capitalism although not necessarily the argument he's trying to make). But, crucially, it's a problem because fascism has a tendency to flourish in open debate. If the marketplace is thrusting these ideas onto Newsnight and beyond, the left needs to be tackling the issue of freedom of speech from a different angle.
Firstly, when seeking to build class consciousness, we need to constantly and confidently be articulating what 'absolutist free speech' actually means in context. The right are happy to use free speech so long as it's a euphemism to denigrate people with no consequence but aren't exactly shouting from the rooftops for the UK to overturn the ban on, say, the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The very same movement calls immigrants illegal and supports the criminal justice system when it cracks down on terrorists. But it's not simply the case that we should expose the far right's hypocrisy by nullifying them in arguments as this can always be twisted; it's about political education and being prepared to utilise this as justification for our disruption and direct action.
It's also not credible to argue the left doesn't hold an 'alternative model' of free speech. Rather, we often simply fail to articulate it clearly enough. With the exception of Stalinists and other authoritarians, who believe the state should curtail certain privileges, the position of most leftists is coherent, unified and unequivocal. We are ultimately more pro-free speech than liberals because we recognise that capitalism enables fascism and we oppose both.
By building a classless society that places emphasis on expression, culture and democracy, we create conditions in which nobody is as inhibited as they are under our current system. Contrary to popular belief, socialists don't advocate a monochrome vision where dissent is discouraged. If anything, we promote one where diversity and free expression is encouraged, quite unlike the homogenised consumerist culture we're fed under capitalism.
On a concrete level, when we seek to train activists in political activism and education, we need to be touching on the contemporary issues that the far-right are seizing on for their narrative and reclaim them. Freedom of speech is only the tip of that but it will continue to be prevalent as long as the likes of Robinson feel legitimised. We refuse to live in a society where minorities are required to debate their right to exist. We shouldn't be on the retreat when it comes to free speech. We must have conviction in our activism because, unlike Robinson's liberal apologists, we're on the right side of history.