(This is a guest post by David Broder, formerly of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and a vocal “minority” advocate in recent political debates on Iraq, Israel and Iran – VP)
The furore over the recent article by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Sean Matgamna excusing an Israeli attack on Iran has now died down. The four pages splashed across Thursday’s Solidarity belie the silence that has fallen. There have been hardly any comments on the AWL website about the issue for a week; except for a short piece by Matgamna proving that the CPGB have upset him in the recent Punch-and-Judy, the articles in Solidarity are all old reprints from the website discussion; the statement circulated between around a dozen AWL minority comrades did not make the paper; and the discussion bulletin promised for August 17th never materialised.
This was hardly surprising – the participants in the discussion all had totally different parameters for debate and therefore the argument ran into the ground without any new conclusions being drawn. This despite the one glaring similarity between the Matgamna position and the so-called “kitsch left” position, namely that neither side is aware of the difference between the interests of the working class and their ‘national’ ruling class and therefore have no option but to line up behind the “lesser evil” bourgeoisie, whether that be the “anti-imperialist” rulers of Iran or Israel, which Solidarity labelled “the most democratic society on Earth”.
The level of debate was appalling. Sean Matgamna – who admitted at our North London AWL branch meeting when challenged that he could not name a single Iranian trade unionist and was unaware of strikes taking place in Iran – simply assumed that the Iranian rulers were all al-Qaedist suicide bombers and that they were developing nukes. Anyone who knows me will know that I am no apologist for the Iranian regime, but you have to take the dynamics of the situation seriously. Khatami has repeatedly criticised “hard liners”, preaching moderation, civilian nuclear energy only, and Iran-US negotiations. A brief search on Google reveals that Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Khamenei issued a Fatwa against the development, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons in August 2005, unlike Mohsen Gharavian – a disciple of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who is close to Ahmedinejad – who in February 2006 said that it was permissible to use them. I would certainly not advocate alliance with sections of the regime opposed to Ahmedinejad or support for “reform” Islamists, but they are a real factor in the situation.
Furthermore, the argument was characterised by ridiculous personal attacks. On the AWL website Mark Osborn wrote that “in an ideal world [Workers' Power's] Richard [Brenner] would be well balanced and a foot taller”, called Bill Jefferies “Bill Braincell” Ben Lewis “Benny Boy” and made a Welsh/sheep-shagger joke about the CPGB’s Mark Fischer. Tom Unterrainer wrote that “when it comes down to it HOPI will strain every sinew to excuse and defend the actions of Iranian clerical fascism against the Iranian working class”, without any explanation. If only the AWL leadership really did devote as much time building links with Iranian socialists as they did to squabbling with the rest of the left, their position would be a little more credible. Not that any of the Iraqi socialists they would talk to refuse to call for “troops out now”; similarly, I doubt the Iranians would be too delighted if the Israeli jets came and the AWL “refused to condemn” it.
You might be wondering why I’m moaning about all this: of course, none of this behaviour is new. After the close vote on Iraq at the AWL conference in May, Mark Osborn had loudly heckled that the group was full of “Maoist youth”. Last summer there was a pathetic fight between the CPGB and AWL, with lengthy, rambling personal attacks in both papers and the bizarre spectacle of the AWL’s Paul Hampton picketing the CPGB’s Communist University holding a cornflakes box and making chicken noises. I can’t quite remember what the dispute was about: I’m sure some trainspotters of the “blogosphere” will. Solidarity has just as much bumpf about left groups as any other paper.
While I had generally disliked the culture of AWL internal debates, which are usually characterised by a few people rallying around the EC and blandly asserting that their critics are “ill-educated” or “outside the tradition” without any explanation, what really changed my mind about the possibility of “reforming” the AWL was a specific incident that took place at the group’s office, where I have worked on-and-off, two weeks ago.
It started when I received a phone call from Tom Unterrainer that morning. As soon as I had said “hello” he said “I hear that you’re organising a faction”. Tom said that Sean and him were concerned about my recent “behaviour” in the Israel-Iran debate and wanted me to come to the office and discuss it with them.
Unsurprisingly, at the “meeting”, Sean repeated the age-old claim that I had pieced together a “rotten bloc” of minority comrades who I allegedly “actually” disagreed with.
But, much worse, in a series of paranoid slanders I was also repeatedly accused of supporting and goading on “kitsch left” attacks on the AWL; questioned on what links I have with the CPGB (a group I left over the question of Respect more than four years ago, aged 15, having been a member for barely two months) and Workers’ Power; and questioned over my motivations for having a personal friendship with Ben Lewis, who is in the CPGB.
In a breathtaking accusation of disloyalty, they asked what meetings I had had with the CPGB and Workers’ Power. Even to ask the question is an open expression of mistrust. (Thinking back, I once did go to meet Luke Cooper and Richard Brenner from WP, and did go to the Communist Students conference… in both cases having sought the AWL Executive Committee’s permission in advance!)
In this vein, I was asked how come the CPGB and I “use the same formulations to polemicise against [Sean]“. By “same formulations” they meant: I recently criticised Sean for “excusing” an Israeli attack on Iran, then a few days later the Weekly Worker had a headline criticising Sean with the word “excuse” in: as if the mere word “excuse” were some new invention of mine.
So not only was I accused of having been provoked the whole debate (since it was I who wrote the first response to Sean’s article on the website: apparently the article itself was not the cause of the row), thereby giving some sort of passive encouragement to the “kitsch left” to attack Sean: but I was also accused of active collaboration with the CPGB and Workers’ Power.
The one thing not up for discussion at the “meeting” was the politics of Sean’s article: Sean said he did not want to discuss it since my response was “not political” but rather “a stream of personal attacks”. He couldn’t cite any specific personal attack though, which made me think that they can’t have been particularly hurtful, and he turned down my offer to show him the article so that he could point out where all the personal attacks were.
Indeed, at this “meeting”, after repeatedly expressing my objections, I was mandated by these two Executive Committee members to produce a statement repudiating the CPGB and Workers’ Power and affirming my loyalty to the AWL, which Sean would then “vet” and make “suitable” for publication. When I sarcastically commented that rather than “vetting” the statement, maybe Sean should write it himself and put my name on it, he paused and then said – apparently entirely sincerely – to Tom, “I’d prefer to do that, but then he’ll claim afterwards that he was forced to do it”.
Indeed I was forced to do it. But I didn’t – to write a “statement of loyalty” and stick it up on the AWL site would have been grotesque. The culture in the AWL is not “Healyite”, but this was along those kind of lines.
I instead wrote a message to the AWL’s email list explaining what had happened and why I wouldn’t do it, which was met with a cavalcade of responses from all the usual suspects, most of them claiming that it was in fact I who was acting undemocratically since I should have written my response to Sean on the National Committee email list rather than publicly. Quite why I am to blame for “starting” a discussion for writing the second piece in it (you see, without a second post it wouldn’t have been a discussion, just an article… although it was entitled “discussion article”, which implies that it should be both…) is beyond me.
In a bizarre rant, Sean said that the cause of the problem was that… “David has bought into some commonplace anti-Bolshevik mythologies: he clearly does not agree with the organisational norms of the AWL, or of the political tradition that we trace back to the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Party. He sees or construes things – in this case the ‘meeting’ – to fit the anti-Bolshevik caricature of organisations like the AWL.” I was furthermore an “anti-Bolshevik” and a “centrist-anarchist”. People took sides on the “meeting” according to their views on Israel and Iran.
A discussion bulletin had been mooted, and the “meeting” was meant to be discussed at the next National Committee. Of course, there is no way in which Sean Matgamna and his ally Tom Unterrainer could have been censured by such a meeting.
There is, indeed, no prospect of replacing the EC of the AWL with another set of people, and that stymies all other discussions. If Dan Randall’s “troops out” motion had got a few more votes at the group’s conference and secured 51%, that would not have changed anything, since the same people would write the same articles about Iraq, perhaps calling their pieces “discussion articles”. The same people would be in charge of educationals and set the tone of all debate and discussion, and indeed even if the AWL had voted for “troops out of Iraq” Sean’s piece would still have appeared and had all the same outcomes, including the heretic-hunting “meeting”.
All debates are in any case largely between people on the leading committees of the group and have little input from the rest of the membership: I was amused by the suggestion that I am just angry at not being on the AWL EC, given that any vote on that committee on any issue would have been 6 against 1. In this case, Sean Matgamna decided that he disagreed with the conference policy on Iran and thus wrote an article saying we should not oppose an Israeli attack against that country: now it is universally believed that this is the AWL position, there is a moratorium on discussion, and so he has got his way.
With all that in mind, Chris Ford and I agreed that it was pointless to continue fighting in the AWL. There are lots of dedicated and intelligent comrades in the AWL who I was reluctant to break with: but they also will hit a brick wall (and the same kind of behaviour) if they attempt to fight the leadership. The only real alternatives are to leave or to bury yourself in your “own” campaigns and activism while semi-ignoring the “big politics” spouted by the AWL leadership. The latter is of course pointless – you can be a perfectly good activist or union militant without advocating any of the ideas expressed by the AWL.
Presumably all AWL “dissidents” want to advocate independent working-class politics, re-examine the state of our movement and the tasks of the working class and articulate a vision for a communist society. They will have much more chance of doing that with Chris Ford, myself and others who were not in the AWL than they will by remaining in that organisation.