debsian at pacbell.net
Thu Aug 17 08:14:29 PDT 2000
Weekly Worker 321 Thursday February 3 2000
Weekly Worker 321 Thursday February 3 2000
Beyond the pale
Do socialists and communists support the banning or suppression of
'offensive' views - especially far right and fascistic ones? Is it a
hopeless manifestation of libertarianism to oppose state prohibitions on
racist and neo-Nazi organisations?
These are truly vexatious questions for many on the left. If only the whole
awkward theoretical business could be swept under the carpet or permanently
silenced by emotive moralising. But the left needs to come up with
principled and coherent answers now. It is a particularly apt time to
address this issue. Over the last month the high court has been the site of
the David Irving 'holocaust denial' libel trial. Irving is taking action
against Penguin Books and American academic Deborah Lipstadt, author of
Denying the holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory. Her book
contends that the rightwing historian is a "Hitler partisan" and "a
falsifier of history", whose substantial oeuvre amounts to a denial that the
holocaust ever took place - while Irving says this is a libellous accusation
which aims to ruin his reputation and career.
The response of the Socialist Workers Party to the libel battle is
informative. In an article on the Irving controversy, the 'What we think'
column in Socialist Worker thunders: "There is only one reason for denial of
the Nazi holocaust. It is to make it possible again ... Holocaust deniers
should be confronted whenever they raise their heads, and Irving's books
should be banned from every public, college and school library" (my
emphasis, January 22).
The SWP's instinctive anti-democratism on this matter is worrying. The above
comment is in reality a battle cry to attack the principle of freedom of
speech and democratic rights in general. It also has to be said that the
SWP's authoritarian approach to 'anti-fascism' does not come completely out
of the blue. The CPGB has previously been informed by SWPers that only duly
accredited students should be allowed to read and study Mein Kampf. It is
presumably OK for those who can afford it to purchase Irving's many books.
But, say our Big Brotherish SWP comrades, ordinary workers and students must
be protected from 'bad' ideas - otherwise they might have incorrect thoughts
about the holocaust and World War II.
What are Irving's 'bad' ideas? In his very readable, two-volume set,
Churchill's war: the struggle for power, Irving sets out to puncture the
Churchill myth peddled by official hagiographers like Martin Gilbert. Heresy
in itself for mainstream opinion. Irving portrays Churchill as a corrupt,
vain, hypocritical and fundamentally immoral man who did everything he could
to prolong the war merely to justify and promote his own narrow and
megalomaniacal political ambitions. Irving also emphasises how Churchill's
prime motivation during World War II, apart from self-aggrandisement, was
the defence and preservation of the holy British empire. Certainly not the
pursuance of a noble 'anti-fascist' crusade - least of all a humanitarian
concern for the plight of European Jews. For Churchill it must surely be the
case that the holocaust was indeed a "mere detail" of the war. The horrors
of Auschwitz and the other death camps were a convenient add-on gloss, when
it came to the production of anti-Nazi propaganda by the ruling class and
Looked at from this angle, there are many aspects of Churchill's war that
the left could tangentially concur with. It may even be possible that
Irving's book, if studied in a highly critical and intelligent manner, could
act as a useful antidote to the anti-Nazi/World War II propaganda of the
However, Socialist Worker obviously thinks otherwise. It does not seem to
like the idea of such dangerous and unsettling opinions circulating freely.
Perhaps significantly, the Irving article recommends Martin Gilbert's
books - alongside Donny Gluckstein and Primo Levi - under the headline,
'Books that tell the truth'. Here is your allotted dollop of 'truth' and do
not ask for any more, warn the SWP patriarchs in true Oliver Twist style.
The same Socialist Worker article quotes Irving as saying that "the gas
chambers at Auschwitz which they show to tourists are a fake". Any
half-educated person knows that as the Red Army approached the Nazis
hurriedly dynamited the gas chambers, and that the Soviet troops set fire to
the typhus-infested huts. Visitors to Auschwitz are indeed shown
reproductions of the gas chambers and detention huts - they are "a fake" in
that sense. The fact that Irving made this comment to a meeting of the far
right German National Party, as Socialist Worker informs us, does not make
it any less true. It just shows the sort of company Irving likes to keep.
It is also not strictly correct to say that Irving is a 'holocaust denier'.
He accepts that an enormous slaughter of European Jews took place. But what
Irving disputes is its actual scale and scope, arguing that there are
insurmountable "logistical problems" to murdering, cremating and disposing
of six million people - his figure instead is about one million. (In an
analogous fashion some US scholars have tried to prove that JV Stalin only
butchered 200,000 by a study of the official Soviet execution warrants -
maybe "logistical problems" also preclude the certainty that the victims of
Stalin's terror ran into many millions.)
Irving's 'revisionist' opinions go further than merely doubting the numbers
killed by the Nazi death machine. He also questions the 'authorship' of the
holocaust - steadfastly maintaining that Adolf Hitler, and other Third Reich
leaders, did not have any plan or programme to annihilate European Jewry.
Yes, multiple shooting and killings occurred spontaneously 'on the ground',
but they were not sanctioned or ordered from above. According to Irving,
Hitler ordered a stop to mass executions of German Jews who had been
transported to Riga, part of the Soviet Union occupied by Nazi forces.
Hitler was not all bad, suggests Irving fetchingly.
Make what you will of Irving and his obsessional, life-long mission to upset
and offend what he perceives to be official or received opinion on the Third
Reich. Socialists and communists of course find Irving's 'revisionist' views
quite repugnant - some even think he is a bit of an all-round weirdo. To
describe him as a Hitler apologist is not libellous - at least as far as the
court of history is concerned, which will most definitely not absolve
Irving. One cannot feel the same level of confidence about the British high
courts and its money-driven libel laws.
But this does not mean we call upon, or encourage, the bourgeois state to
ban Irving's prejudices. Communists uphold the democratic right of Irving to
express and publish his views - just as we should have the right to read and
criticise, or condemn, his argumentation. It is the height of folly to call
for bans and censorship of 'incorrect' opinions. Such measures, in the hands
of the bourgeoisie, will inevitably be used against their main enemy - the
working class and its organisations. A principled Marxist position which is
regrettably hard to find in the slightly hysterical January 22 edition of
The SWP's reaction to the David Irving trial forces one to ask how it would
react to proposals that seek to restrict or stifle freedom of speech. In
recent years there has been spe-culation about introducing a German-type law
in the UK making 'holocaust denial' a criminal offence. One strongly
suspects that if our bourgeoisie eventually plucked up the courage to
implement such a draconian piece of legislation, the SWP would
liberalistically collapse under the weight of politically correct
anti-racist/Nazi propaganda. Just as it did, along with the rest of the
left, over the Macpherson report's findings into so-called
'institutionalised racism' (fully in accord, it has to be said, with the
plainly daft notion that capitalism and the bourgeois state is 'inherently
Some serious rethinking needs to be done by the SWP comrades if they are to
avoid the pitfalls of bureaucratic socialist thinking. Take Germany again.
Last weekend some 600 neo-Nazis marched through the Brandenburg Gate in
Berlin, in order to hear the chairman of the National Democratic Party, Udo
Voigt, denounce plans to erect a national monument in Berlin honouring the
Jewish victims of Nazism. This was the first such display since the end of
World War II and originally the police had imposed a ban on the
demonstration. However, a Berlin court overturned the police ban, saying
freedom of speech should take priority.
How should the SWP's sister organisation in Germany have reacted to this
development? To judge by Socialist Worker's comments on Irving, perhaps the
German SWP should faithfully echo the sentiments of the ex-official
communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which called the decision of
the Berlin court and the subsequent demonstration "an alarming violation of
a taboo". Does the SWP really want to be in a position where it puts its
faith - as does the PDS - in the common anti-fascist decency of the
bourgeoisie and its state?
What the SWP comrades desperately need is clarity and consistency. When the
(American Jewish) academic Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler's willing
executioners, which expounded the thesis that the Germans are an inherently
anti-semitic people who had been waiting for decades for the chance to
destroy the Jews, it was quite rightly trashed in the pages of the Socialist
Worker - but nowhere did it call for the suppression of the book, offensive
though its contents may be.
Interestingly enough - SWP comrades please take note - the (American Jewish)
academic professor Norman Finkelstein launched in writing a savage
indictment of Goldhagen, suggesting that the latter was motivated more by
pro-Zionist/Israeli apologetics than a burning desire for the truth.
Goldhagen threatened to 'do an Irving' and drag his critic through the libel
courts, while the (American Jewish) Anti-Defamation League issued a menacing
warning to Finkelstein's publishers which stated: "The issue ... is not
whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong, but what is legitimate
criticism and what goes beyond the pale." Just as the views of David Irving
are "beyond the pale" for the SWP.
The most effective weapons to wield against racist and fascist views are
full openness and the politics of consistent democracy. The flourishing of
pernicious anti-semitic and racist ideologies in ex-bureaucratic socialist
countries like Russia and former Yugoslavia, to name just two, only helps to
confirm this self-evident truth.
Only a cynic or an inveterate sectarian would cast doubt on the sincerity of
the SWP comrades' commitment to socialism. But this commitment is undermined
by the paternalism and authoritarianism that afflict the organisation. To
genuinely advance the self-liberation of the working class and universal
human emancipation the SWP comrades need to become champions of consistent
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