I have always struggled with the notion erroneously (it seems) attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’

On the face of it this maxim exemplifies the truly liberal society; one which fully embraces freedom of speech – a proper open democracy. But what about the views of Nazis?

I – and I suspect many of you – will never defend the views of the far right, let alone to the death. Indeed, quite the contrary. So how do we justify this messy shift in logic?

Perhaps Voltaire, if he said it at all, was simply wrong.

What then is the limit of our liberal willingness to entertain extremes and controversy in the name of freedom of speech?

Extreme expressions and controversy in the world of art is considered the means by which boundaries are pushed and that, as we are told by the critics, is to be commended, the same cannot be said of controversial ideas in the realm of governance by either the far right or, by logical extension, the far left. This in itself reveals a form of logical inconsistency.

Take the recent banning in Russia of Mein Kampf. Reuters reported the ban as ‘an attempt to combat the growing allure of far-right politics.’ [1] Does the ban go too far? Or is it justified as a means to halt fascism?

To flip the scenario as a thought experiment: how would we on the left feel if the new ConDem coalition sought to ban the works of Trotsky following the Socialist Worker’s Party storming of Acas offices during the Unite’s union negotiations with the despicable BA, in fear of the rise of the far left?

First, I guess the comparison is somewhat like comparing apples to oranges, especially to an outsider. But I think the point remains a moot one: to be truly liberal means to defend the rights of the worst of the far-right (and the best of the far-left) on the principle that freedom of speech is sacrosanct.

So the distinction to justify endorsing those words attributed to Voltaire only to a certain extent must lie elsewhere. Perhaps it is in the promoting the use of violence for the use of deliberate persecution where we can mark the watershed.

Sir Karl Popper talked about this when he said: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them,” concluding that “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

But who is to judge what is to be tolerated?

Thus you can see how difficult it is to find a philosophically strong point from which to stand on this issue. I guess – in the end – we make our own personal value judgements on things like this as the truly logical conclusion is just too unpalatable.

My personal position is this: I do not believe banning Mein Kampf is a good move, in the same way I believe pushing for a ban on the BNP because they are the BNP will not drive the fascists away. It serves only to drive them underground and, as evidence has already shown us, to radicalise them.

No, we must meet the fascists head on; not on the streets with fists but first in the battleground of people’s perceptions. We need to deconstruct their arguments and reveal the true nature of the BNP and their European counterparts; only then can we ensure they are democratically impotent precisely because decent human beings will see through their policies as an abhorrent affront to civilised people.

Thus, I feel, there is a terribly sad irony that the Nazi bible is to be banned just as the Nazi’s themselves had began their totalitarian regime by banning and burning.

The ban needs to be lifted in Germany too as it has already demonstrated that it is futile: anyone can buy the book on ebay or Amazon and elsewhere on the web and get it delivered to their door. And the fascist skinhead scene [2] thrived on being an underground means of disseminating hate throughout Europe and the USA.

Mein Kampf needs to be taught and discussed and thus to be understood as a document of hate. Then it acts a signpost to the markers that allows genocide to continue into our own modern era. Only by educating – both from history and today’s world around us – we will learn from the mistakes man has sown for himself. The West played its part in the creation of the Third Reich when we burdened Germany with un-payable reparations from WWI. In the era of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the US supported the insurgency which eventually gave us the Taliban, Al Qaeda and militant Islam the world-over.

The notion that the ban will stem hate crime in Russia or anywhere else is baseless. A book – mere paper and words – does not cause hate crime just as it cannot commit hate crime; it needs an executor and a motive, just like the knife, smashed glass bottle, gun or concrete block, just like the fist, iron bar, brick or nail bomb…

[1] Reuters, Moscow: ‘Russia bans Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as extremist’ – 26th March 2010 by C. Sweeney.

[2] Just read our former MEP’s Glyn Ford’s work on this topic to see how incestuous the fertilisation of hate is among skinheads across Europe. I think the book is still available as a Searchlight publication, or try the ANL website.

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