A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities
and the Limits of Free Speech
Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right
Abingdon (Oxon): Routledge, 2020
Paperback. viii+230pp. ISBN 978-1138591684. £35
Reviewed by Peter Mandler
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
It all began with a real war, a civil war in Spain, with a speech by a Spanish Communist during the Siege of Madrid in July 1936: ‘no pasaran’. At the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ the same cry – ‘they shall not pass’ – was taken up by the 100,000 protestors who stopped 3,000 supporters of the British Union of Fascists from marching through the Jewish East End of London in October 1936. While there had been plenty of skirmishes between Communists and Fascists on the streets of interwar Europe, it was this stirring politico-military cry that stuck in the memories of the British Left.
The tactic and the slogan then largely went into abeyance, until they returned, perhaps surprisingly, in a very different context, the student politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This resurgence was driven mostly by Trotskyist and Maoist groups, with a long Marxist memory, and with a noble anti-fascist pedigree that they were anxious to revive. The opportunity was provided initially by ‘hard right’ Conservative MPs, notably Enoch Powell, whose ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 again resorted to explicitly racial language, aimed now not at Jews but at Afro-Caribbean and Asian immigrants. The racist cause was then picked up by recognisably Fascist groups in the early 1970s, notably the National Front, always a small agitprop group but most active and provocatively visible in the early 1970s. It was as a calculated riposte to the visibility of the National Front that one Trotskyist sect, the International Marxist Group, coined the slogan ‘no platform for racists’ (or, alternatively, Fascists) in 1972 as a modern ‘no pasaran’ and by 1974 it had become the official policy of the National Union of Students (NUS).
To understand the potency of this policy it is necessary to understand the place of the ‘student union’ in Britain in the 1970s. The union was a national organisation, to which were affiliated individual student unions in colleges and universities. In many universities the student union had a virtual monopoly on student clubs and societies, registering them and funding them via a block grant from the university. The ‘student union’ was also a physical place, a centre for social and political activity, dominated by a bar and a disco, but providing among other things office and meeting space for clubs and societies. Student unions that chose to adopt the NUS policy – not all felt bound by it – therefore exercised considerable power over political meetings on campus.
Evan Smith’s book gives a coherent narrative of the back story and the emergence of this policy, opposition to it, and its rapidly metastasising applications. A policy initially motivated by the need to avert or confront violence associated with Fascist groups had already from the beginning of the ‘70s begun to shift to suppressing all racist and Fascist activity on campus. Early applications were aimed against meetings held on or near campus by the National Front and the far-right Conservative pressure group the Monday Club, culminating in a demonstration against a National Front meeting at Conway Hall, held deliberately to coincide with an NUS special conference debating ‘no platform’; one student demonstrator was killed, adding fuel to the fire of the debate.
Later in the 1970s, as the National Front went into relative decline, the policy was aimed more frequently at ‘hard right’ Conservative MPs, and then against Conservative MPs not so much ‘hard right’ as ‘libertarian’. There were attempts to apply it to Zionist meetings, and occasionally against all Jewish student organisations. Individual student unions and anti-fascist organizations interpreted the policy freely. Student unions could choose not to give a platform to anyone they considered Fascist or racist, by denying use of their own facilities. They could instruct students not to share platforms with Fascists and racists, for example, in debates. In a few cases, they sought to eject known National Front members altogether – Patrick Harrington who had enrolled at the Polytechnic of North London had to be ‘taught in isolation’ after student groups disrupted business as usual sufficiently to force the institution’s hand. Disruption – by heckling or sometimes physical force – was another tactic used to deny a platform where the student union didn’t or couldn’t. One campaign sought unsuccessfully to secure the expulsion of a lecturer at a further-education college in 1981-2; another sought to boycott a history lecturer who wrote newspaper columns deemed racist, until he took leave of absence.
As the National Front went into decline, and student activism migrated elsewhere, the ‘no platform’ policy remained and was in the 1980s and afterwards increasingly applied to other targets. Sexism and homophobia were already deemed acceptable targets in the early 1980s. Sexists and homophobes were held responsible for overt violence – sexual harassment, rape – but also for cultivating a discriminatory atmosphere where women and gay people felt unwelcome or, increasingly, ‘unsafe’. Famously, the same policy has more recently been extended to transphobia, including (or especially) statements by radical feminists defending some rights exclusively for people born female. In 2015 the NUS LGBT conference passed a resolution against inviting or sharing a platform with transphobic speakers; again, some student groups chose to interpret this policy as licensing other practices, including disruption.
Smith is valuably explicit on these shifts of policy and of targets, but his overwhelming sympathy for the policy – as well as his antipathy to the targets – makes him not their most searching analyst. His enthusiasm means he is more concerned not just to describe but to defend these ‘shifts’ – they are, simply, ‘very necessary’ – than to scrutinise them. Where ‘no platform’ seems to pitch one set of rights against another, as is certainly the case in feminist debates over transphobia, he takes the side of the no-platformers. (Two exceptions – he is studiedly neutral on ‘no platform for Zionists’, perhaps because it was quickly dropped by the NUS, and he is hostile to ‘no platform for Islamists’ as ‘Islamophobic’.) Above all, he does not really seek to assess whether the policy was ‘effective’, a word he uses mostly assertively rather than argumentatively, often quoting people who agree with him as ‘evidence’. Where it seems to be applied after the targets are already in decline, or where the targets’ rise and fall seems dependent on events far from university campuses, consistently he still holds it partly responsible for that decline, and does not choose to dwell on alternative interpretations. If racist and Fascist ideas have been chased out of the far right into the Conservative Party, which then wins elections, it is not clear how successful anti-fascism had been, nor what is the best subsequent recourse. As young people feel increasingly estranged from that Conservative Party and its government, they may also feel increasingly obliged – indeed, entitled – to take the fight back into the streets.
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