The Origins of Nazi Violence by Enzo Traverso
Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm
Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno
The Voice of Modern Hatred: Tracing the Rise of Neo-Fascism in Europe by Nicholas Fraser
The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich
Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech by Cass R. Sunstein
In Hitler's Shadow: A Journey Inside Germany's Neo-Nazi Movement by Yaron Svoray, Nick Taylor
The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen by Raphael S. Ezekiel




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Free Speech and Intolerance

By Martyn Jones


I came of age politically in the exotic world of regional and national politics, smoke filled committee rooms, Guinness and policy amendments. Young socialists spending endless hours arguing out everything from the ‘meaning of life’ to feminism, urban renewal, Monty Pythons flying circus, sales of arms to despotic dictatorships, and the threats of imperialism and trans-national capitalism. We argued like hell, with little experience of the world, but with passion and conviction, as if we could really could transport all the ills of the world to our little provincial group, fix them and then send them happily on their way. We encompassed many diverse opinions. However, one thing that we all seemed to agree on was that socialism itself was an inevitability - the inevitable result of the natural evolution of democracy and the progress of a civil society.

In these early days I used to arrange debates with other local political groups: the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Communists. We wanted to test our debating skills and also to compare approaches. Rather surprisingly we could agree that the goals of socialism were respectable and to varying degrees, even inevitable. Of course, the Communists wanted it all, and more, and now! The Conservatives stated that socialism was in their view just a modernized version of the teachings of Jesus, that revolution was not really a British cultural thing and that gradual evolution was the best way forward. The Liberals also agreed, because socialism was after all really just a collection of good ideas we had stolen from them. The Socialists took the middle ground, between the Communists and Conservatives, not so much in terms of policy but in terms of the time-line for progress and the aesthetics of change. Another thing that was generally agreed on was the enormous distaste for anything that remotely resembled fascism. Indeed, the very idea of debating anything with fascists was anathema.

All this I recall because I was recently prompted to ask myself why I would not engage certain people in debate. Was it because of dogma? Was it to avoid confrontation? Were there rational reasons for taking this position? How did I arrive at this conclusion?

Sometimes it’s not so easy to exteriorise the origins of long-held positions, but I gave it a shot.


Occasionally, some Americans find some European approaches to “freedom of expression” to be confusing. The United States of America has been widely admired and occasionally admonished for it’s past approaches to freedom of expression and its notions of democracy. At the same time, the “American view” of freedoms of expression in western Europe is frequently a mix of criticism of what is seen as the relative narrowness of the criteria of freedom of political expression, and open contempt amongst people prominent in US cultural, political and religious life of what they perceive as Europe’s free and easy permissiveness with certain subject matters. Another thing that cannot be readily understood when viewed from the US perspective is a tendency, in least in western Europe, to isolate and marginalize extreme right-wing political tendencies and groups.

Different Lenses

Part of the problems with perception are derived from what the political terms mean and how they are used. In modern times, national elections in Europe usually result in socially aware and democratically committed centrist-conservative governments. In western Europe’s recent history, there has been a tendency to elect to government those parties that are traditionally termed conservative, liberal or socialist. However, governments formed by conservative majorities are nearly always led from the centre or left wing of those parties, whilst governments formed by socialist majorities tend to be lead by leaders who come from the right wing of those parties, very infrequently from the centre of those parties and almost never from the left wing. Which means that a conservative government in Europe typically looks like a government that would be formed by the right wing of the Democratic party in the US, and a government in Europe that carries the socialist label would typically be lead by leaders who would feel at home to the left or at the centre of that very same Democratic party.

No Room at The Democracy Inn

In the public perceived acceptable forms for European governance there is characteristically no room made for extreme-right wing ideology, and very little room for socialist ideology, other than in the exceptional cases in which certain socialist and liberal influences are seen in policies such as: universal health care: national public education; universal social security; workers rights and the ownership of certain utilities. Indeed, these policies are also supported, to some degree or another, by most mainstream European conservatives, and conservative leaders have also made key contributions to the architecture of socially oriented programs, such as Universal Health Care.

In general Europe does not see fascism and socialism as being two faces of the same coin. Rather, socialism is frequently seen as utopian, idealistic and hugely impractical, in this way, it is respected but not accepted. In contrast, fascism is seen not so much as a respectable political option but as a social disease, an extreme and irrational reactionary force that feeds off alienation, fear and ignorance. Whereas socialism is seen as being all inclusive and plural, fascism is seen as destructive, alienating, exclusive and discriminating.

Engaging The Extreme Right

As I have stated on numerous occasions, I would not engage the extreme right-wing in any form of debate, in any forum and under any circumstance. Over time, I have been asked why I would not engage such people in debate. The assumption being that debate with people with reprehensible opinions would lead to a better understanding of their positions, and provide greater ammunition to go about defeating their arguments.

My own reasons for not engaging with the extreme-right in debate are:

  • Time and Place Utility: Convinced fascists are a lost cause, no amount of reasoned debate will change their perspectives – in any forum, at any time. Simply stated, there is no value to democracy, to the civil society, or even to oneself, in debating with fascists.
  • Legitimacy: Engaging in political debate with fascists (extreme right-wingers) might be perceived as lending a certain legitimacy to their perverse ideas – ideas that are more an external manifestation of a social disease rather than any reasoned political thought. Indeed, any legitimisation of fascism is an insult to the many of the victims of fascism – and it’s variants. In this condemnation we can also include the victims of Stalinism, aesthetically a kindred spirit of European fascism.
  • Awareness: The driving forces behind fascism are already well known, if not constantly expounded at every level of society.
  • Protection: Fascism is the biggest threat to the civil society and it’s institutions

Fascism and Europe

Fascism is not generally viewed as a legitimate political position, indeed there is also a thought amongst liberals in Europe that the only thing one should be intolerant of is intolerance itself. The idea that we can all just get along is not something that Europe can swallow. This isn’t a selective discrimination that has just been taken from the air, from ignorance and prejudice, it’s to be found in the embodiment of reasoned morality in the very structure and processes of the civil society.

The alienation of fascism in Europe really has it's roots in the notion that society has a tendency towards self destruction, and that this would be it's highest expression, so in order to protect that very society that we aspire to, it is necessary to marginalize the biggest potential for its destruction. I remember, that, for example, that the Anti-Nazi League in the UK addresses the spread of racism and fascism by addressing the issues, but not by engaging in direct dialogue with the racists or fascists

Europeans do not generally think of democracy as just a effortless procedural norm “but as an historical conquest”, which is an understanding that it is impossible for us to be democratic without being at the same time anti-fascist. A democracy that is not at the same time anti-fascist is impossible to contemplate in a Europe well acquainted with the horrendous results of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. These are our hard-learned lessons, the lessons that we should never forget.


Modern history has taught us that one cannot expect to go through life and retain exactly the same viewpoints and arguments come hell or high water, but logic and heuristics also speak to us regarding the abandonment of well reasoned and morally respectable goals, simply on the mistaken basis that they are no longer relevant or are now outdated. This is at best, an exercise in liberal flexibility and intellectual sloppiness, a carelessness beyond the call of duty, a form of woolly thinking that leads to Tony Blair’s support for the war-mongering George Bush, and for new Europe’s occasionally sycophantic behaviour.

Therefore, in my opinion, we don’t need to engage and debate with extreme right-wingers and fascists to know what they are about. We don’t need to engage the KKK to know that racism is vile. We don’t need to discuss anything with nazi-revisionists to know that the Holocaust was a horrendous criminal act. We don’t need to engage psychopaths in dialogue to know they are potentially dangerous. We don’t have to engage in debate with abusers of children or women to understand the issues or to know what is seriously wrong with it. We don’t need to engage the war-mongers and those who lust for blood to know that the only justification for war is defence. We don’t need to crawl into the sewers to know that crap smells. And, we cannot realistically expect to be considered both as credible defenders of democracy and civil society and at the same time play footsy with the extreme right-wing.

At the end of the day we must be morally coherent and cohesive, and protect democracy and the civil society, even if this means sending the far-right and the fascists to hell in a handcart.

© Copyright 2004 Martyn Richard Jones
All Rights Reserved


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