Published in Weekly Worker 979
Last week Ally MacGregor graced the Weekly Worker letters page with a strange comparison. According to the comrade, our proposed amendments to the Socialist Platform – intended to clarify and strengthen it and which were opposed by Nick Wrack’s drafting group in the name of absent communismophobes – are similar to the efforts of Left Unity’s ‘safe spaces working group’ to impose a bureaucratic code of conduct upon LU.
Actually, the difference between the approaches could not be greater: one puts forward the revolutionary vision of a free, classless and stateless society no longer characterised by oppression of humans by humans. The other argues that special oppressions – as well as a number of behaviours and debating styles that are not to the authors’ liking – can and should be kept at bay by bureaucratic decree.
I am not sure of comrade MacGregor’s exact position on either communism or ‘safe spaces’, but, judging from my experience in Left Unity thus far, ‘safe spaces’ policies and rules on language are advocated most vocally by the right wing, such as the Left Party Platform: ie, comrades who look to European parties such as Die Linke and Syriza as models to follow. However, such ideas also find support among well-meaning lefts, including some who quit the Socialist Workers Party over the Delta debacle. This is unfortunate – for, as Paul Demarty argued in his recent Weekly Worker article, such measures are “never as innocent as they seem”. I would like to use this opportunity to send out a warning.
Die Linke is not only the envy of the Left Party Platform in terms of relative popular success; it may also be described as setting a benchmark for bureaucratically enforced political correctness. What is more, in an organisation led by social democrats very adept at bowing before the demands of the German state, ‘safe spaces’ measures are chiefly enforced against radicals who fail to stick to the official line. Indeed, the prospect of finding yourself publicly denounced as an ‘exterminatory anti-Semite’ by BAK Shalom, a pro-Zionist and pro-imperialist task force in the party’s youth wing, can make Die Linke appear a very unsafe space for anti-imperialists.
Of course, the fact that such hatchet jobs – sometimes carried out in the pages of the bourgeois press – are tolerated, if not instigated, by the leadership flows directly from its capital-friendly, ‘don’t rock the boat’ politics, dressed up for easier left consumption in the emancipatory language of anti-racism and anti-fascism.
One may dismiss malicious accusations of anti-Semitism as a specifically German obsession, but Die Linke’s right wing has many other ways of containing unwelcome discourse. Ostensibly to protect members from sexual assault, the summer camps and national congresses run by the youth section, Left Youth Solid, are now overseen by so-called ‘awareness groups’ – a sort of ‘safe spaces’ Stasi. Aside from keeping a watchful eye over proceedings, these serve as a first point of call not only to victims of actual assault, but to anyone who, for one reason or another, feels ‘threatened’ by a comrade’s vocabulary or demeanour.
The bureaucratic stroke of genius is that the complaining party remains anonymous – a rule which provides the awareness groups with ample opportunity to fabricate complaints against whomever they wish, with the possibility of ejecting them from the site. Add to this the fact that they are prominently staffed by activists from the aforementioned BAK Shalom task force and the slightly more moderate Emancipatory Left network – whose members like to depict themselves as victims of “Stalinist violence” and “Kurdish terror” supposedly raging at the annual Lenin-Liebknecht-Luxemburg demonstrations in Berlin – and you know that you will probably be subject to special observation if you are a communist.
A young German comrade told me an anecdote from this year’s Left Youth Solid national congress. She protested during a debate that the women’s policy advocated by Left Youth Solid was largely a bourgeois form of feminism. This prompted her opponents to approach the ‘awareness group’ and complain that the comrade had “adopted male domineering speech patterns”, which had greatly upset them. To admit that it was her argument, not the tone of her comments, which had annoyed them – let alone to say it to her face – was just beyond these people’s bureaucratically deformed imagination.
Reportedly, it can be enough to carry yourself in a ‘macho’ fashion perceived as ‘threatening’ by other congress delegates or use vocabulary that offends delicate sensibilities in order to be targeted. Such accusations are commonly directed against the few working class youths that Left Youth Solid manages to attract. Effectively, the awareness groups are utilised by certain members of this nominally socialist organisation to act out their class prejudice.
It is scarcely a coincidence that, the further you look to the right, the more enthusiastic Die Linke and Left Youth Solid functionaries are about ‘safe spaces’, awareness teams and political correctness. I trust that many Left Unity supporters, including those that currently support the Left Party Platform, are sufficiently together not to allow their prospective party to become a dystopia of Die Linke proportions. The proposed ‘safe spaces’ document should be rejected – it would be self-defeating to entrust any party apparatus with the intrusive, draconian, speech-regulating powers that it implies.
The left is not a particularly sexist, racist, or LGBT-phobic place to be – certainly compared to society at large. Those rare cases of actual abuse must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and a transparent, democratic party life is the best way to encourage a prefigurative, emancipatory culture. Even the 18th century freemason, Adolph Freiherr Knigge, to whom German popular myth incorrectly ascribes overtly prescriptive ‘how to’ guides on etiquette, knew that “compulsion kills all noble, freely given commitment”.