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OPINION An elephant trap for the left

A demoralised and insular left is in danger of handing the issue of free speech over to the dishonest right – and no good can come of it for socialists, warns KEVIN OVENDEN

ON THE one hand, threatening to cut funding from English heritage bodies that do not promulgate the official fiction that the British empire was an unalloyed force for good.

On the other, arrogating to the state fresh powers to enforce free speech on university campuses that are apparently in the totalitarian grip of left-wing lecturers and their anti-colonial studies.

The flat contradictions in the Tory government’s attempts to divert attention from its failures into a US-style “culture war” are more than simple hypocrisy.

They point to a deep strategic dilemma that ought to make defeating this Tory aim of consolidating their voter base relatively straightforward. It ought to. But it also sets an elephant trap that the left is in danger of jumping into headfirst unless we get our response right. And unless we acknowledge that there is an elephant in the room.

A piece in the Jewish Chronicle by the government’s anti-semitism “tsar” Lord Mann this week illustrated the Tories’ contradictions. 

Timed a day before Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement on freedom of speech in universities, Mann was at pains to say he was in favour of that principle.

He argued that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism, which conflates that form of racism with fundamental criticism of the state of Israel and which he supports, did not mean restricting “academic freedom of speech or research.”

That he had to claim that is an indication that it is indeed being used in that way, something Tory ministers and others have pressed for.

When an academic committee at University College London rejected the IHRA definition and insisted upon something precise instead, they were impugned as not caring about anti-Jewish racism.

Mann went so far as to oppose an attempt to ban celebrated film-maker Ken Loach from an event at St Peter’s College Oxford on the grounds of his views on Israel-Palestine.

The event went ahead, but the college later apologised for the “hurt” some Jewish students said they felt at Loach speaking.

That ought to be a warning to the left that grounds of hurt or offence are not ones upon which we can approach this issue. Apart from anything else, our opponents can easily use them and do.

Yet too often that is indeed what happens. It provides an easy entry for this Tory ruse to claim the mantle of democratic debate, and it leads to us, not them facing the charge of hypocrisy.

So, while a broad spectrum of left opinion opposed efforts to no-platform Loach, far fewer have spoken out over another Oxford case: Professor Selina Todd.

Todd is a socialist-feminist from a working-class background and is a professor of modern history. 

Not your usual Oxford academic. Unusual too is that she has had to rely on the university providing security so she can deliver lectures.

Her “crime” was to take a view on women’s sex-based rights, trans rights, and where they converge, diverge and may conflict that a large number of left-wing activists object to.

Further, they say that her research itself, which is around the social history of women and the working class, is “harmful.”

You only have to read Todd’s latest book, Snakes and Ladders on the social mobility myth, to see that the only “harm” caused is to the ideology of successive governments that a bit of meritocratic tinkering is all that is needed to overcome Britain’s entrenched class system.

A left that can defend socialist film-maker Ken Loach’s right to speak but not socialist public intellectual Selina Todd’s will resolve the contradictions on the right for them and take the badge of hypocrisy as our own. 

At the very least it invites the charge that the socialist left applies different standards over Palestine-Israel than to other areas of conflicted rights claims. Talk about an own goal.

Worse than silence are some arguments so preposterous that I cannot imagine those making them believe what they are saying. 

First, this just isn’t happening. Second, and with no regard to logic, the fact that Todd and some courageous others such as PhD student Raquel Rosario Sanchez are able to speak about it is evidence that no-one is being bullied or silenced.

How many on the left who rallied to Loach’s defence would accept the argument that it is impossible for him to complain of no-platforming because he has made dozens of films and won an Oscar?

Incoherent positions bring bad and inconsistent arguments. The University and College Union this week responded to Williamson by denying that there is an issue around campus free speech. 

At the same time it cited its own research showing how the spread of short-term contracts and precarious conditions does restrict academics’ capacity to speak freely. So which is it?

The good second point is not helped when some academics dismiss the sacking of Maya Forstater from a major NGO. 

She asserted her belief in the reality of biological sex and its political implications in a society suffused with women’s oppression.

But, they say, she wasn’t sacked. She just didn’t have her contract renewed.

There is a deeper problem behind these ludicrous “six impossible things before breakfast” responses.

Free, democratic speech has been a cause of the left since the English Revolution. 

A demoralised and insular left is in danger of handing the entire issue over to the dishonest right and to liberals who spout an abstract principle but cannot make it a social reality.

Karl Marx’s thunderous defence of free speech and publishing in the early 1840s is reasonably known. It is all too often put down to an early liberal, democratic phase or to conditions of direct state censorship that are not such an issue now.

But the socialist movement at its best neither abandoned a policy championing democratic speech nor did it fall in behind the notion of a “marketplace of ideas.” 

That was the phrase used in the US Supreme Court drawing on the thinking of British liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill.

Marketplace is apt. Just as the capitalist free market is meant to optimise economic wellbeing so the free exchange of ideas will produce the best thinking. We know that does not work in the economy.

Nor is it true of a marketplace of ideas that is every bit as hypothetical as a market in goods supposedly free from great concentrations of power, such as the British imperial navy as it enforced an empire of un-freedom.

Generations of socialists have pointed to the structural inequalities and to the concentrations of state and corporate power that limit not only who gets to speak, but who gets heard. 

This daily paper is excluded from all the television reviews that purport to cover what the British press is saying.

Ownership, control, democratisation of the instruments of speech and combating the exclusion of the marginalised are all realities socialists highlight. 

But that does not mean abandoning the principle of vigorous democratic debate just because liberal capitalism has never lived up to it, principally due to its defence of capitalist property relations that are based upon the domination of the mass of humanity.

Losing sight of this has become the problem. We have vicious capitalist institutions that are able to pay lip-service to some of the gains in social attitudes resulting from upsurges decades ago while turning them into managerial strategies and cover for continued methods of domination.

Amazon has a big “diversity and inclusion” budget. Its website proclaimed “Black Lives Matter.” It is busy trying to crush a unionisation drive in Alabama, for a century a crucible for forging multiracial working-class organisation and battling the reality of racism.

University staff across Britain have human resources departments with all sorts of diversity champions awards from outfits like Stonewall that are sending out redundancy notices by email and closing entire departments.

The Tory distraction on all this cannot be dealt with unless the left deals with an uncomfortable problem. Too many on the left hear “free speech” and associate it with grifters on the right or even lampoon it as “freeze peach.”

Confusion may have come from failure to understand how stopping actual fascists from violently organising — no platform — arose from a militant defence of democratic debate, including with those who held sometimes reactionary ideas that fascism sought to turn into something worse.

I think more has come from a defeatism in which despite a significant minority looking to the left we don’t really have confidence that we can win our ideas among the mass of people.

That is disastrous. Not just pragmatically, but on principle. The mass of people will democratically advance the socialist cause or it will not advance at all.

Not an imagined “marketplace,” not corporate “diversity management” but a real fight to enhance democratic debate and participation upon which the labour movement depends.

That would knock the Tory government into a cocked hat. But it does require a change of direction and not pretending that there is no problem. People aren’t stupid — thankfully.


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