This article was written as a reaction to the latest developments in the Hungarian student movement. The student occupation of a building on the campus of Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) represents an escalation of the struggle of over the future of the higher education in Hungary. Today students allowed a group of neo-nazis to enter a forum they were holding and allowed them to speak. Fredrick Schulze, an American anthropologist and PhD student at Central European University, Budapest, offers this important critique.
No-Platform: Notes on the Hungarian Student Movement
by Frederick Schulze
February 12th, 2013 in Budapest
Today at ELTE
Today I watched as about fifteen nationalist footballers walked calmly into the forum of the student blockade at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest and participated in the discussion. Their participation was defended by the student organizers on ‘democratic’ grounds. This brief paper will explain why this is a massive mistake and what this mistake says about left organizing in Budapest as well as a simple concrete solution on how to correct this.
Liberal democracy is to real participatory democracy what capitalist equality is to real equality; it is a formal appropriation of an effective method of counter-power restricted and directed in such a way that it in fact reproduces a power inequity. In capitalism this is simple; the labor contract under a condition of legal equality reinforces a condition of power inequity via a property relation. Liberal democracy, though equally as simple, is so ingrained in the European psyche that it requires at least a couple short paragraphs.
Liberal democracy replaces the ‘force of the common people’ – the etymological definition of ‘democracy’ – with allowances given by power to the popular class. The most important of these allowances is the freedom of speech – a thoroughly disgusting concept – which stipulates that absent the ability to actually-physically-durably DO something, one must be grateful that they can at least talk about it. The ability to replace deeds with words, however, is not the most insidious aspect of this ‘right’; it is its ability to disguise power relations in a mask of equality and remove any view of the underlying system which has created them. Real democracy is the antithesis to liberal democracy, not its extension.
The footballers in the ELTE auditorium were correct when they said that they are ‘not democratic’ – the people who benefit most from liberal democracies have absolutely no need to believe in its underlying mythologies. The fascists are tolerated because they are willing to do what the State is not; they are willing to engage in real concrete action with a strong and overt ideological base without the threat of losing popular legitimacy. So long as the student movement still believes that the ‘public sphere’ of speaking equals is in fact what its mythology claims it to be, they will allow real power to run unhindered over and through their otherwise brilliant efforts. Speech, or ‘communicative action’ in a more general sense, occurs within a field of vast inequality held up by bureaucratic spiritualism – it is this field tout court that must be combated and resisted until an independent and internal field can be constructed.
The fascist footballers are not participants in the university occupation. It is the height of idiocy to afford them the power of real participatory democracy on the basis of liberal democratic mythology. If they are not there to help, they should not be there at all. Never forget that the most successful fascist groups are elected by liberal democratic methods. In a participatory democracy, that is to say, in a movement based on the power of participants as in the HaHa movement, not every vote counts and not every voice should be heard, only those participating in the struggle – in fact, in real democracy the most powerful voices and votes are the ones being fought against.
Just a Football Club
Fascists are invisible in Hungary. One older gentleman running a television camera in the forum watched the footballers enter the ELTE auditorium and immediately signaled to his much younger colleague to begin filming them. The young fella looked to where his elder was pointing and signaled back that he had no idea what he was supposed to be seeing. In frustration, the older cameraman climbed up the stairs to where the boy was seated and said “the Nazis!” only to meet another look of confusion. “What Nazis?”
In a country where fascists have in recent years been engaged in open murder, mobbed takeovers of entire villages, elected members of parliament and continue to wander freely through a city that provided the Holocaust with a substantial portion of its victims, one would think that Hungarian anti-fascism would be among the strongest in Europe. In fact, it is nearly entirely absent. It is considered a ruined term, at best employed by vote-seeking liberal politicians and at worst a re-articulation of the exclusionary policies of fascism itself. Both of these facile critiques stem from liberal democratic fetishism – in the first instance it privileges the politician with the final say in a term’s (in fact a tactic’s) ultimate substance and in the second it holds that in a democracy all voices and votes are equal and should be included in the discussion. As I hope I have expressed above, both of these views are wildly misguided.
Fascism is invisible in Hungary because nobody is doing anything to stop it. Stopping a group of fifteen footballers from entering a supposedly democratic forum should have been a ‘no-brainer’ and in fact would have been incredibly easy. Any press not overtly in support of the occupation should have been prevented from attending the proceedings in the first place (this would include the fascists who brought their press badges) and given brief summaries written by the coordinators at the conclusion of each meeting instead (because, again, speech which flows freely in a field of vast inequity is dangerous to real equality). The bulk of the fascists who did not claim press rights should/could have been physically stopped from entering the building with a minimal contingent of occupiers. The ELTE forum had three choke-points that should have been exploited: the gate, the entrance to the building, and the hallway to the forum. A very small number of anti-fascists could have protected these without instigating violence (though they should be prepared for it to come anyway). Instead they had one dumb-ass Texan from CEU (me) pressing his slender academic back into guys twice his size to make their entrance harder while looking frantically around the room of several hundred students for support only to realize that half the people in the room were not even aware that these people were, in fact, threats at all.
By letting them speak their mind, HaHa may have avoided a confrontation, but this should be seen as a total defeat and not some graceful uncompromising stance on the principles of participatory democracy; it wasn’t. It was a major victory for the liberal democracy which has created the problems the forum was designed to fight and it proved once again that the only people who actually understand the stake of the student struggle are its enemies.
No-Platform – a simple solution
Just because the police let them in, it does not mean they are allowed to be there; this should not be a legal decision but a democratic one. The law, as the violent arm of a liberal democracy, is only there to ensure that there are no problems with the dominant forms of relations in society or the centralization of power therein. It is up to us to ensure that our own power is used in clear and principled ways.
The solution I am offering here is one known as ‘no-platform’ – an invention of the British anti-fa movement of the mid-80s. As other writers on the subject have pointed out, Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) took very seriously Hitler’s statement in Mein Kampf that “only one thing could have stopped our movement – if our adversaries had understood its principle and, from the first day, had smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement” (cited by Hayes and Aylward 2000). For AFA, this meant direct and constant street-level confrontation and widespread disruption of any attempt for the British Neo-Nazi movement to be seen on the street or heard in the ‘public sphere’. The goal of HaHa, however, should simply be to keep them out the student movement, and therefore both the scope and tactics of a HaHa ‘no-platform’ model ought to be comparatively mild and perhaps more acceptable to the Budapesti palette. I am not suggesting that HaHa ought to wipe right-wing nationalism off the map of Hungary (greater or otherwise), but I am urging them to keep them out of the movement – especially the spaces that movement works in – by the least violent means necessary to… you know… smash something with the utmost brutality.
The AFA were so successful that their primary fascist opposition, the BNP, were forced to abandon street-level engagements and focus on party-politics and ‘hearts and minds’ activism – in essence, they became liberal democrats like their ancestors. In Hungary, the fascists have taken over the streets in several towns with no opposition, but one might meekly argue that this is not HaHa’s concern. Allowing this insane argument for the moment, it should still be clear that fascists thrive most readily in liberal democratic fields in which currents of nationalism, belief and faith in institutional authority, and a fear of bold confrontation have tipped the balance of power in their favor. In this field, we have to push our platform uphill before we can even hope to replace theirs while they simply have to ride theirs down in order to get onto ours. Their platform must never be allowed to come anywhere close to our own – no platform!
Broad Networked Solidarity – a nice bonus
One of the many benefits of this strategy was that it allowed disparate factions of the highly fragmented and antagonistic British left to join in a common cause. In Hungary, HaHa has already set up an infrastructure for such activity and by capitalizing on it via direct anti-fascist action it would allow itself to work in solidarity with the shared cause of groups like A Város Mindenkié, the moldering old guard of the political Left, the struggling labor movement, etc. without being overtaken or represented by any of them. An anti-authoritarian socialist answer to capitalism and liberal democracy does not have to be signed in some declaration or theorized within an inch of its life, but it does have to be made in practice. The university occupation is a phenomenal example of such action and the right-wing knows it. They came when the police could not and established their presence where the State had been too timid to enter. One action must be backed by another – the fascists do not need to be told that they are not welcome, they need to understand it. This is necessarily a group effort and can only result in a stronger, broader, more integrated left in Hungary specifically and Central and Eastern Europe generally.
A final note
I was sick at home when I heard the Ultras were coming to disrupt the forum and I came to assist as a body that can occupy space in any effort against them only to find that there wasn’t one. In any other capitol city in the region, the Texas academic would be the last person to advocate for anti-fascist action. This paper should not have been written in English. This paper should not have been written at all. I understand that Budapest has a troubled history with the concept of anti-fascism, but do I even need to mention its history with the concept of fascism? The problem is not that the fascists came to press their ideology with violence; it is that, once again, they did not even need to.