Self-congratulation was the order of the day on the Auckland left, after Canadian rightists Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern were forced to cancel their speaking event on Friday 3 August. The venue they had booked, a popular music venue called the Powerstation, cancelled their booking on the day of the event. According to the Powerstation owner, Gabrielle Mullins, she acted “after receiving complaints.””It goes against quite a lot of things that we say,” Mullins said. “They can say whatever they want but personally I don’t want it in my venue.” (“They wouldn’t want to be branded the White Power Station for the rest of time,” wrote Joe Carolan, one of the organisers of protests against the pair, in a public Facebook post.)
At a rally of about one thousand people called to express opposition to the ideas Southern and Molyneux were advocating, many speakers applauded the cancellation. Protester Emilie Rākete was reported in the New Zealand Herald as saying that “the people gathered categorically rejected hate speech and that message was clear. They couldn’t find a single venue. They wanted us to give them a platform and they don’t deserve one.”
“The sooner they get out of here the better,” said Minister of Justice Andrew Little.
Molyneux and Southern blamed the cancellation on “far-left terrorism.” Southern said in an interview after the cancellation that a “radical minority” was attempting to decide what the rest of the nation thought. “They don’t want open inquiry … they don’t want questions asked….They just want to shut down events that disagree with… their opinion.”
The rightists lose little from this cancellation – for them, such bans are their stepping-stones to the moral high ground and a wider audience, and Southern and Molyneux clearly know how to make good use of them.
Far more serious, from the point of view of working class interests, is that a significant blow has been struck against the right of workers to hear, think, discuss and debate ideas, one which will have serious consequences in years to come. The fact that the blow has been delivered in the name of those who face discrimination and oppression only makes it worse. Across the land, from the offices of the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice down, patriotic breasts are swelling with the smug illusion that New Zealand is a “community” where “these ideas are not tolerated.”
I wonder how many of those celebrating this cancellation as some kind of triumph of the popular will have ever held and defended a minority opinion.
Let me make that thought more concrete: If they had ever tried, for example, to find a hall to rent for a socialist conference, and run their finger down the list of local outfits with a hall for hire – Christian churches, Orange Lodges, wealthy private schools, money-hungry clubs and bars, right-leaning city councils, and so on – I wonder whether they might see the statement of the Powerstation owner, “They can say whatever they want but personally I don’t want it in my venue” in a different light.
Perhaps if they had ever faced eviction by a capitalist landlord because their left-wing bookshop has had its windows smashed by a rightist vandal, they might not feel so quite so elated about the readiness of venue operators to cancel an event due to ‘security concerns.’ Maybe then, also, they might not feel so pleased about the fact that Southern and Molyneux were presented with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars by the cops in Australia for simply exercising their democratic rights.
Perhaps, if they had ever had a perfectly legal and inoffensive Facebook page dedicated to their minority political cause arbitrarily shut down by the media giant “after complaints,” then maybe, as they read the grovelling statement of apology from the Powerstation owner to “all who have supported the Powerstation and who we may have offended,” some alarm bells might be ringing somewhere in their heads?
These issues are not new for the working class. I was reminded recently of a letter written by James P Cannon, one of the founding leaders of the Communist Party in the United States in the early 1920s, and later, of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Cannon was no stranger either to fighting Fascists or the repressions of the capitalist state. In the late 1930s he helped to lead the battles in Minneapolis against a Fascist outfit called the Silver Shirts, in which the working class forces organised by the Teamsters Union succeeded in driving the Fascists off the streets. Later he was one of eighteen leaders of the Teamsters Union and SWP who were railroaded to jail for their opposition to US participation in World War 2. He also led the defence of the party and others persecuted by the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s – spearheaded by incipient Fascist Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In 1960 Cannon wrote to Tom Kerry, another SWP leader, in connection with the attempt by George Lincoln Rockwell, a leader of The American Nazi Party, to hold a rally in New York City. Rockwell was refused a permit by the city’s mayor. In view of its relevance to this discussion, I am reproducing here the entire text of Cannon’s letter.
23 June 1960
I learned by way of radio and TV last night that Mayor Wagner denied the preposterous American “Nazi” outfit a permit to hold a meeting in Union Square; and that he said the people “would stone them out of town.” Then the TV report showed the scene of the attempt to mob the American Nazi leader outside the courtroom. I am disturbed by this little off-beat episode and wondering rather anxiously to what extent, if any, we were mixed up in it and how the paper is going to handle the occurrences in its report.
No doubt it was “a famous victory.” But a victory for what and for whom? Certainly not a victory for the right of free speech and assembly as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to which we are firmly, and I hope sincerely, devoted. For us, I take it, under any reasonably normal conditions, free speech is a principle—not only before the revolution but also after it, when the workers’ government becomes stabilized. But free speech is also a practical necessity for us, of particular burning importance when we are fighting as a small minority for the right to be heard.
We certainly didn’t win anything to sustain this right by Mayor Wagner’s decision. It sets a dangerous precedent. The reasons he gave for denying the constitutional rights of the American “Nazi” screwballs, and his incitement to violence against them, can be applied just as well and just as logically to us or any other minority. We will be greatly handicapped in fighting against such discriminations if we give direct or even indirect sanction to this treatment of others. People who demand free speech and constitutional rights for themselves but want to deny it for others do not get much public sympathy when their own rights are denied.
This was demonstrated quite convincingly by the public and labor indifference to the persecution of the Stalinists in the period since the cold war began. The Stalinist record of claiming rights for themselves and denying them, or trying to deny them, to their opponents boomeranged against them. It gave other people a reason, or an excuse, to stand aside or even to join the hue and cry against the persecuted Stalinists on the ground that “free speech is all right, but not for communists.”
I don’t think the “Nazi” crackpots lost anything by this New York decision. They got a lot of nationwide free advertising, and a chance to appear as a persecuted minority, and the ground to appeal for funds and recruits. If they had a cause with any semblance of appeal to popular sympathy they should profit by this flagrant denial of their rights under the Bill of Rights.
The whole episode is quite obviously a tempest in a teapot It has very little relation to social and political realities in present-day America. But there is a symptomatic significance and we should ponder it. The problem, in one form or another, will come up again and again; and we must not stumble into an improvised policy each time. We have to have a line. As I see it, our line is free speech. We have to fight for it and convince other people that we mean it. With truth on our side, we have the most to gain by freedom of discussion and the most to lose by its suppression. It is true that, as the class struggle develops, we will have to fight the fascists, and not only with words. But this will not be a fight to deprive the fascists of the right to speak and to meet, but a defensive fight to prevent them from interfering with the rights of the workers.
James P. Cannon