Bans, the SWP and the struggle to defend feminism on campus

Occasional disclaimer: Sometimes people get the wrong idea about us, so just to be clear this is an article written by some members of the IS Network. The IS Network is a diverse group and obviously not all members will agree with everything that is said. That applies to all of the articles we produce as our members all have minds of their own and we do not practise democratic centralism.

Feminists on campus are facing new challenges on campus, and are stepping up to meet the challenge. New tactics need to be developed in an attempt to simultaneously contain our opponents and build activist feminist groups.

In very different scenarios, feminists have been forced to consider the role that bans might play in turning back patriarchal power.

The International Socialist Network has been among the most prominent and vocal opponents of the rump-SWP since the rape cover-up. Many of our members were some of the earliest oppositionists inside the party and some of the first to be “pulled by the outside world” and speak openly about what was going on. However, we did not initiate the campaigns for the proposed bans on the SWP. This is an experience without parallel in the last generation of Britain’s student, socialist and feminist movements. We are learning from the initiatives taken by feminists on campus. And while we are not convinced that unions banning the SWP can effectively shield students from it, we have some experiences to share and a dedication to standing behind other feminist organisations confronting organised misogyny and rape apologism.

We will not stand with the SWP against feminist campaigns. Socialist feminists must stake out our own turf and avoid collusion with the SWP. Where ban campaigns have momentum, it is important that everyone goes through the experience of understanding the depth of the anger, and explore the options for dealing with what remains of the party. Some SWP members are new recruits who think they are fighting for socialism; they are not hardened cadres. A ban on an entire Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) may not, in most circumstances, be the best option. There are other ways to deal with the SWP – ways that we think are more effective.

Some oppose the bans and no-platform policies proposed against the SWP: they say bans are anti-democratic and they want to protect socialist groups. We think such opposition that relies solely on a moral panic over free speech is mistaken. The SWP is bad for feminism and socialism. Relying on bans and no-platform policies in an institution like a student union is also bad for feminism and socialism. These tactics leave the union leadership as the leading and active element in the struggle against the SWP and its sexism.

After unions make such bans only the bureaucracy will enforce the policy. The risk is that this will kill public political debate on the issue. Grassroots opposition including but not limited to protests at SWP meetings, interventions in SWP meetings, arguing with its remaining activists and providing evidence of their behaviour are more effective. Not only will this be more effective at hastening the eventual demise of the party, but it will be better for feminism. These active grassroots tactics place feminist activists as the active agent in the struggle, not careerist bureaucrats nor the ‘radical bureaucracy’ developing in some parts of the student movement. In public political confrontation with the SWP, feminists will be best placed to recruit and build activist grassroots movements.

Right wing elements in the bureaucracy may attempt to abuse the politics behind the ban and no-platform policies. Here is an example. The NUS brought a safe space concern to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts as an excuse for dropping out of the 2014 demonstration: the NUS was concerned that the protest would not be a safe space because the SWP would be on the march. The NUS manipulated the policy. That does not mean we oppose safe space politics. However, we should remember that lots of progressive ideas are abused by right wing bureaucrats. They want to wriggle out of events they oppose and shut activists down. The NUS would have dropped out of the demo on another spurious pretext if it couldn’t abuse those safe space arguments. The key issue with safer spaces politics is not in the ideology behind safer spaces: it’s the ideology behind those who enforce them. We must keep that in mind, being aware as we struggle for safer spaces. We think safer spaces policies are best enforced by the grassroots, not the bureaucracy. We must be wary of handing weapons to those who may later use them to attack us.

We oppose a moral panic over free speech in student unions: they are member organisations not the state. However, we think we need the highest and most rigorous standards around free speech. Free speech cannot be absolute; it has to be negotiated by our community. We have a duty to provide a secure environment for all. We must have consistent positions on where the limits are, and be very clear and open in the reasons for these limits. We don’t think the no-platform policy against the SWP is being applied consistently. A consistent approach could ban most mainstream political parties and the Catholic Church from student unions on the same grounds used for the SWP’s ban. A better approach to the SWP and SWSS in student unions is not to shut down the society, nor to ban them. We should support and fight for unions to have decent membership disciplinary policies for misogynistic behaviour. If any SWP or SWSS member in a student union is behaving in a misogynistic way then they should be told to change their behaviour by the union. Failing that, they must be disciplined as a member of the student union, as any normal member would be for misogynistic behaviour.

Alongside challenging individuals, it is also necessary to challenge the SWP as an organisation. We celebrate the wide range of creative and non-violent tactics that have been used to challenge the SWP, to educate people about the rape cover-up and the party’s continued apologism for this tragedy, and to challenge its claims to be a progressive ally of feminism. In learning from these tactics, our experience has been that macho and violent confrontations with the SWP push the party into a dangerously comfortable space that reflects its own culture. Destroying SWP publicity does nothing to educate the key audience for a feminist challenge to the SWP: the people outside the SWP. We have to warn people about the SWP, and to ensure that what happened is never forgotten.

These are the ways we can fight the SWP’s misogyny and help create safer spaces without alienating those who understandably rally to the banner of free speech.

We think many SWSS and SWP activists, especially their new student members, are not aware of, or engaged with, the SWP’s rape apologism; they think they are fighting for socialism, or perhaps have been spun a yarn by the party’s apparatus about destructive sectarians like the IS Network, who tell lies about the party and the awful events of the last few years. Bans could alienate people who are new to the SWP, and bind them more closely together instead of getting them out of the SWP’s orbit. Dealing with individuals, and asking for action against individuals, is a more politically consistent and effective practice in student unions.

There must be spaces where the SWP is not allowed. We would almost certainly not allow the SWP to make interventions into IS Network meetings. However, we think it is a mistake to ban the SWP in student unions and other public institutions.

Many comrades in what remains of SWP can still be debated with. However, the moments of internal opposition have passed. Opposition activists have left; many into rs21 and the IS Network. Bans and no-platform policies will probably further stifle honest discussion in the SWP, and may ultimately be counter-productive as the SWP would use the attempts to ban it to try to regain legitimacy by rallying people around it in a fight for free speech.

Comment: As if no-platform policies are ever consistently applied. They always no-platform groups that can’t or won’t fight back. Cowardice is human, all too human. Hell is eternal, Hell is eternal, Hell is eternal!!!


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