Approximately 200 protestors, including students and trade unionists, gathered outside the Cambridge Union on Tuesday 19th February to protest against Marine Le Pen’s invite to speak. The leaders of the Union – an old debate society – have gained a reputation in recent times for courting controversy, inviting various dubious political characters under the guise of “freedom of speech”.
Approximately 200 protestors, including students and trade unionists, gathered outside the Cambridge Union on Tuesday 19th February to protest against Marine Le Pen’s invite to speak. The Cambridge Union is an old debating society at Cambridge University, which invites famous speakers from various walks of life. In recent times, the leaders of the Union have gained a reputation for courting controversy, inviting various dubious political characters under the guise of “freedom of speech”.
Le Pen, the French leader of the far-right Front National party was greeted with chants of “Nazi scum – off our streets”, “Le Pen, Le Pen – never again” and “Follow your leader, shoot yourself like Adolf Hitler”.
The Union building was surrounded by private security and around 50 police officers, holding back some demonstrators who attempted to make their way into the building. Those attending the talk were thoroughly searched and prevented from carrying cameras and mobile phones, passing through checkpoints in order to attend a ‘public speech’.
Police officers were confronted with the crowd’s chants of “Who protects Nazis? Police protect the Nazis”, and French protestors joined in to cry out “Vichy, Vichy – jamais plus!” A holocaust survivor spoke to the crowd as French television cameras, reporters and passersby looked on, arguing that Marine Le Pen is a “new symbol of fascism” in Europe.
A comrade from the Cambridge branch of Syriza, the radical left party in Greece, joined in to remind us of the brutality of the members of fascist organizations, such as the Golden Dawn in Greece, particularly when they are allowed to hatch out of the cocoons of capitalism and become legitimised. The Syriza comrade’s message was clear: let’s not repeat Greece’s mistake and trivialise such events; these far-right and fascist organisations must be challenged by the labour movement across Europe.
Le Pen left the venue at 18:45, rushing out through a side door, accompanied by her private security, protected by the police, and met with the discontent and chants of the protestors.
The excuse from the Cambridge Union for inviting Le Pen under the banner of “freedom of speech”, reeks of hypocrisy. “Freedom of speech” does not mean “we must give these people a platform for their reactionary views”, as is being suggested here. As a significant figure in French politics, Le Pen has no shortage of platforms available for her reactionary ideas. It is not the duty of anyone to offer her yet another opportunity to put forward her views unopposed. In turn, Le Pen has no qualms about denying immigrants such rights and opportunities, as she attacks them and turns them into scapegoats for the problems caused by the crisis of capitalism.
As Marianne Brooker wrote in the Cambridge student newspaper Varsity:
“Just because the Union can invite Le Pen, doesn’t mean that it should… Freedom of speech is not an unmitigated right to all public and private platforms. The Union have, again, blatantly disregarded the wider political, social impact of its decisions. In doing so it has, again, degraded its own platform, contributing only to the ever whirring PR machine of the far right, not to meaningful debate. Freedom of speech is a protection from the oppression of those who wish to silence by violence. Those discriminatory groups which would, given the chance, take away that freedom, do not deserve it.”
Lenin and Trotsky frequently argued that the concept of “freedom of speech” was a hollow, abstract phrase, used in the majority of cases by the ruling class to confuse the masses and throw dust in their eyes. As Trotsky pointed out, in a war, a general does not give the enemy the freedom to speak to his soldiers. In the class struggle, propaganda is a powerful weapon, and should not be made freely available to ones opponents.
The Cambridge Union tacitly understands this: the Union has shown that it has no qualms about consistently inviting speakers from the right wing, but very rarely do we see any genuine revolutionaries given an open, unopposed platform to put forward socialist ideas. It is an extremely elitist institution, charging £180 for membership and access to its events, and providing a breeding ground for future representatives of the ruling class. This latest episode, therefore, should come as no surprise to anyone.
However, the fact does remain that far right figures such as Le Pen – who came third in the French presidential elections last year, with nearly 4.5 million votes – have found a certain echo for their ideas in society, and cannot be fought, therefore, by simply denying them a platform. Characters such as Le Pen cannot simply be labelled as “fascists” and “Nazis” and placed in a box of morally repugnant figures. To do so obscures the real reasons for the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and creates confusion regarding the way to combat the support for the far-right.
Unlike Hitler and the Nazis in Germany – who relied on the mass support of the frenzied petit bourgeoisie, the small shopkeepers and the peasantry who had been ruined by the crisis of capitalism – Le Pen and the Front National in France, like other far-right leaders such as Wilders in Holland, attempt to appeal to working class voters, clothing themselves in the language of Euroscepticism and protectionism – i.e. supporting French workers against the evils of the EU and immigration.
In this respect, the blame for the rise of nationalism and the far right must be placed on the leaders of the labour movement, who offer no alternative to the programme of austerity that is being pushed everywhere across Europe. It was encouraging to see the demonstration against Le Pen supported by the Cambridge University Student Union, the National Union of Students, and the Cambridge Universities Labour Club. Such a stance against the far right is to be applauded. However, the leaders of the student and labour movements cannot simply be against the far right, but must also specify what they are for – are they willing to fight for an alternative to crisis and austerity, which are responsible for the shortage of jobs, housing, and public services, and which are, in turn, responsible for the rise of the far right?
The organised defence of communities against racist groups such as the EDL – who are due to come to Cambridge this Saturday (23rd February) – and the use of “No Platform” policies against fascist figures is, therefore, only one side of the solution. Workers and students need more than just a “shield” – they need a sword also, and this must come in the form of a socialist programme, to provide a genuine alternative to the policies of the capitalists and the far right. This was a significant component that was missing at the demonstration against Le Pen: the argument that the rise of nationalist, far right, and fascist movements is the inevitable outcome of capitalism in crisis and of the failure of the left leaders to provide a genuine alternative, once and for all, through a socialist program.