A major political controversy of today is over the concept of free speech and censorship. To many, it seems odd that the contemporary left is being railed against for an authoritarian stance against free speech. For many in the West, it seems like the left have been some of the staunchest advocates for free speech. We can think back to the lefts beginnings in the enlightenment with liberalism, which had a principled support for freedom of speech. We can look at the 20th century left of the likes of the ACLU, Free Speech fights by the socialist union the IWW, those against the House on Un-American Actives Committees, and the Free Speech radicals of the Berkley movement that ushered in the 1960s. However, the left has another tradition. In regards to fascism, many on the left have held a stance of “No Platform”, since the 1930s. This was established with anti-fascists in London, notably during the “Battle of Cable Street, with anti-fascists unionists in Minneapolis during the 1930s Teamster’s strike, which faced fascist adversaries, and elsewhere. In the contemporary political moment, we see that the “No Platform” tradition being taken up by the left and those now labeled as right are harkening back to the enlightenment liberalism to wave the banner of freedom of speech.
I feel shaky on this issue, on the one hand, I think fascists are abhorrent and think that fascism building any semblance of political cohesion is dangerous for society, on the other hand, the civil libertarian ideals I hold pull me towards a freedom of speech that should be completely unhindered. Karl Popper dealt with similar dilemmas with his writing on the Paradox of Tolerance. The only thing I can say for sure is that the contemporary left is losing. It would be easy to see the point with the most caricatured parts of the left, the Social Justice Warrior types that have provided a myriad of ridiculous events for the alt-right to cohere around. However, even the most intelligent and strategic leftists who hold nuanced views of “No Platform” are losing and will continue to lose. I don’t say this due to a moral judgment, but rather a pragmatic one, with sympathies for the anti-fascists. The rise of the Internet has made enforcing “No Platform” impossible. Further, controversial and violent events, which clashes between leftists and fascists so often are, tend to attract attention. Entire celebrities have been built around this: Milo Yiannapolis, Ben Shapiro, and others. I would further add that controversial and offensive is not the same as fascists and many on the left have failed to make the distinction, creating a “boy who cried wolf scenario”. That last point aside, the fact is that the anti-platformists and antifascists have been building their adversaries platforms and handing over entire arenas for these people. If the goal was to make these people not be heard, and especially not to allow them to build a political movement with such events, the leftist anti-fascists have failed totally.
New strategies are needed for those that fear the authoritarian right. But while we are fighting the authoritarian right, we may also be curious about the rising authoritarianism on the left. The stage and characters may be different, but it seems we are flirting with the same dramatic scene that engulfed the globe in the 20th Century that played a pivotal role in World War Two and the existential threats of the Cold War, left and right authoritarianism.