‘Fascists don’t obey debating club rules’: The National Organisation of International Socialist Societies and ‘No Platform’ in the 1970s 

While researching my book on the history of ‘no platform’, there were some things that I was unable to touch on in the book and some of the documents that didn’t get included in the final draft relate to the National Organisation of International Socialist Societies, the student organisation of the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s. In the student explosion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the International Socialists had been part of the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation, alongside the International Marxist Group. The leadership of the IS had always talked of focusing of the trade unions as the group’s overall strategy, but the IS also invested heavily in the student movement. Both the IS and IMG were supportive of the ‘no platform’ policy of the National Union of Students and were instrumental in getting the policy voted for in 1974. In this, they were supported by the Communist Party and the Broad Left faction within the NUS, but the Trotskyist left felt that in most areas of activism, the CPGB students were not bold enough.

After the collapse of the RSSF, the IS formed NOISS in late 1974. Alex Callinicos and Simon Turner wrote that the aim of NOISS was ‘to provide the focus for the left in the colleges through its intervention in student struggles’ via ‘an organisation of revolutionary students who identify politically with IS’ strategy for building a socialist workers’ party’. For Callinicos and Turner, NOISS was to challenge ‘the CP-dominated NUS Executive’ and ‘relate to the mass of students’. Even as the student movement of the previous decade started to dwindle, activism amongst students was still seen as quite important for the IS.

However by the mid-1970s, particularly the period of 1976-77, the IS/SWP was also focusing on other areas of struggle. Throughout the early 1970s, the student movement work by the IS had been performed in tandem with the push for more representation in the trade unions, using the method of rank-and-filism. In 1976, the group now focused on the Right to Work campaign and building the anti-fascist movement against the National Front, with a post-conference bulletin declaring, ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’. The concept of ‘no platform’, which was developed by the IS and other left groups in the student movement, was also the basis for the IS/SWP’s broader anti-fascist work.

By 1977, the SWP had been instrumental in the anti-fascist demonstration against the NF at Lewisham and help found the Anti-Nazi League, with the principle of ‘no platform’ embedded within this work. But at the same time, NOISS was continuing the tactic of ‘no platform’ in its student work in various ways, as can be seen in the scanned document included in this post (an issue of NOISS’ journal from circa September 1977 – see below)

Inside the student unions, there tensions over ‘no platform’ as a policy. Originally supported by the IS, IMG and the Broad Left faction (including the CPGB), the Broad Left demurred over the policy and its links to more militant anti-fascism. There was a push at the April 1977 NUS conference for the policy to be changed from ‘no platform’ to ‘no invitation’, which was narrowly defeated. The Broad Left, now with Sue Slipman as NUS President, joined the campaign to overturn the policy again in December 1977, seeing ‘no platform’ as part of the ‘adventurist’ anti-fascist tactics employed by the SWP at Lewisham and Wood Green in the same year.

An issue of NOISS’ journal The Agitator took exception to Slipman’s comments about militant anti-fascism in the wake of the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977. At a NUS Teacher Education Conference, Slipman had criticised ‘elements who have sought to lead conflict into confrontation with tactics that necessarily end in fights with the police’. In reply, Mark Wyler from NOISS wrote:

the National Front must be stopped in the street when they try to march. They must be prevented from holding public meetings. They must be stopped just as Mosley was in the 30’s – by determined mass action. If violence is needed to do that (as it was in prewar Britain) then violence will have to be used. Fascists don’t obey debating club rules.

Another article in the same issue called on students to protest against the National Front in Manchester in October 1977. The author, Dave Richards, reminded readers that the NF had been involved in violently breaking up a meeting of the National Council for Civil Liberties at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 1975, which had led to most universities and colleges in the Greater Manchester area passing ‘no platform’ policies. But also claimed that these policies were in danger of being overturned, at both the national and local level, partially due to the portrayal of militant anti-fascists as ‘red fascists’. NOISS called on students to fight fascism in the universities and colleges, as well as on the streets.

An article explaining the politics of NOISS in the issue reiterated this, boldly stating:

NOISS held an immovable position in fighting all these manifestations of racism, denying racists any platform in the colleges and mobilising students to join anti-racist demonstrations on the street.

While the ‘no platform’ policy was overturned at the NUS conference in December 1977, it was reinstated in April 1978. By this time, the Anti-Nazi League and the movement against the NF was reaching a crescendo and the NUS could not be left behind.

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