The campaign now spreading in some parts of the student movement for the SWP to be banned from campuses should be opposed. We should defend freedom of political expression and debate on campuses.
The form of “banning” varies: tipping over and physically destroying SWP stalls; insisting that SWP members either absent themselves from campaigns or agree to not have SWP materials on them; or banning the SWP from booking or using rooms in students’ unions.
In whatever form it takes, the campaign to “ban” the SWP is not the way to challenge the SWP’s behaviour or combat their ideas; it is not the way to make campuses safer places for women, other oppressed groups or victims of abuse; and all these forms of banning have anti-democratic implications that will serve no-one fighting for liberation.
The argument in favour of banning the SWP runs: because SWP leaders grossly mishandled the case of an SWP organiser charged with sexual harassment and rape, the SWP makes women feel unsafe. It is extrapolated to claims that SWP members as such pose direct and immediate physical threats to safety of women; the SWP must therefore be driven off university campuses; this is not a matter for political debate, but of physical safety.
If that logic were valid, then why just the SWP? The Catholic Church, with its terrible record of abuse, has evangelising organisations on most university campuses. The presence of the Catholic Church on campuses is a much greater threat, and a daily source of much more anxiety and intimidation, than the SWP.
Yet no activist group has passed safer-spaces policies requiring the removal of practising Catholics or of Catholic insignia from protests or meetings. Catholic and other religious student groups are not banned from booking spaces in student unions.
And rightly so. Such bans would make campuses significantly less safe. A young Catholic in the grip of her faith would not be persuaded by such a campaign – if anything, her faith in the Church would be reinforced — or helped to get support. The campaign against the SWP can only produce a similar silence, where objectionable ideas are reinforced within their ghetto, rather than undermined.
What if a young woman member of the SWP, perhaps a recent recruit not fully aware of the “Comrade Delta” cover-up, maybe even herself a survivor of abuse, is made to feel unsafe by having her stall kicked over and her papers burnt, and being told to get off campus? Who is to be the arbiter of which women’s feelings of unsafety justify the making-unsafe of other women?
Those who would ban the SWP should be wary of claiming to be representative of all women, or of all survivors. There are women, and survivors of sexual violence, on all sides of this argument. Claims to reflect “authentic” experience lead to claims that anyone saying different either is not really a woman or a feminist, or is someone whose experience is not valid or has been brainwashed. That approach is a sure way to squash open discussion about sexual abuse, as it was squashed until recent years, adding harm to victims.
De facto, and rightly, socialists, democrats and feminists respond to the presence of the Catholic Church by providing support for those who feel threatened by the Church, discussing and openly protesting against the Church’s crimes and confronting its ideas, and not making counter-productive attempts to confine Catholics to a ghetto.
We respond in the same way to Liberal Democrat, Conservative, and Labour Parties, all of which are responsible for more cover-ups and abuses than the SWP.
Administrative bans and physical destruction of materials cannot combat the ideas of the SWP. They cannot discredit the SWP where it should be discredited; or educate the young, revolutionary, left-wing members of the SWP.
All they can do is create an atmosphere on campuses where bans become accepted tools in the hands of whichever grouping controls the student union at a given moment.
In the 1980s there was a widespread campaign to ban university Jewish Societies because they refused to denounce Israel. The campaign of bans did nothing to help the Palestinians, nor to break J-Soc members who backed Israeli policy from those views. It was entirely counterproductive and wrong.
Ironically, the methods of banning and anathema and denouncing anyone who dissents proposed for “dealing with” the SWP are methods like those used in the past by the SWP itself. They are methods which, despite the good intentions of some of those now using them, can only result in creating a milieu in the image of the SWP in its most sectarian, demagogic and intolerant phase.
Defend freedom of political expression and debate on campus!