Workers Power has made a strange new ally. Daniel Harvey reports
When it comes to exposing racism, we can be confident that there is no group more dedicated to doing so than our favourite Trotskyist organisation, Workers Power.
In fact, you could say that WP - like many on the left, to be fair - tends to see racism when in reality what is on display is British nationalism or anti-migrant chauvinism. For example, the Weekly Worker was criticised by WP leader Richard Brenner for its report of a recent conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.1 In it, Peter Manson raised doubts about the inaccurate way that the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party both used the term ‘racism’. He questioned whether it is accurate to label the UK Independence Party racist (as opposed to a rightwing, nationalist party with some racist members). Comrade Brenner thundered on Facebook:
Look at this crappy report from the WW, which makes it clear they don’t think racism is central to bourgeois ideology, they don’t think Ukip are racist, and they think the straightforward anti-racist views expressed by some delegates at the Tusc conference are to be mocked.2
Comrade Manson’s article pointed to the difference between racism and “national sectionalism”, but, instead of engaging with the argument, comrade Brenner took offence at such a challenge to standard left dogma. That is to say, political difference was reduced to a question of moralism. Similarly, when the 2007 rant against Islam from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s founder, Sean Matgamna, was republished in 2013, the Weekly Worker was attacked by comrade Brenner for not using the word ‘racist’ in relation to it.
In fact, we agreed that Matgamna’s article was a disgrace. Take this notorious passage:
Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.3
That was by no means the only inflammatory part of the article, which went on to describe how “the Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe”.4 The article was taken up and copied on numerous rightwing and xenophobic blogs, who were surprised to see language more associated with commentators like Melanie Phillips and Daniel Pipes employed by a left group.
The Workers Power response was exactly what you would expect:
The whole labour movement should condemn this. Student unions and trade unions have black and minority ethnic groups, equalities and safe space policies: AWL members should be brought to task and asked where they stand on this racism.
AWL members who want to continue to play a role in representing workers and students should dissociate themselves from this statement and demand that the AWL do the same.
If they will not, the AWL must understand that they will be branded across the movement as a group prepared to spread racist fear and hatred of Muslims.5
Of course, because many Muslims have darker skin, the kind of Islamophobia expressed by Matgamna can easily be conflated with racism. But the point is, WP was clearly stating that the AWL, and those AWL members who did not renounce the article, could not have any legitimate “role in representing workers and students”.
Speed forward to 2015 and the internal elections in Left Unity. Which candidates is WP supporting? Well, there is Dave Stockton, who is standing for the national council, and another WP comrade, Rebecca Anderson, who is up for trade union secretary. But comrade Anderson is standing for a job share alongside the AWL’s Ruth Cashman on what amounts to a joint ticket for the post. It seems clear that WP must have actively sought out such an arrangement with this fairly long-standing member of the AWL - an arrangement that obviously implies mutual endorsement.
How do we explain this? Has Ruth Cashman now disassociated herself from Matgamna’s article? We approached her for a comment, and she was categorical: “I do not distance myself from Sean Matgamna, the article or the AWL’s position on the rise of reactionary, politicised religion and the growing role of religion in world politics.”6 She refused to comment on whether WP had challenged her views on the question or said anything to her at all about it.
Rank and file
According to Richard Brenner, this alliance is based on the fact that “the one question [the AWL] are very good on is the need to form an anti-bureaucratic rank-and-file movement in the trade unions.”7 Here we have WP’s economism at its starkest: rank-and-file organisation is seen as entirely separable from the political perspectives being fought for in the working class. WP prioritises trade union-type struggles, as can be seen in its creation and promotion of the Class Struggle Platform in Left Unity.
In this two-dimensional view, political questions, including allegations of racism, can be downplayed in favour of the all-important dichotomy: on the one hand, the “rank and file” approach, represented by the joint ticket, and, on the other, that of the “bureaucrat” - in this case in the form of the rival candidate, Oliver New. Comrade Brenner confirms this himself when he says:
I think the AWL’s most rotten positions will be outvoted on the NC, but that on one of the key questions - the trade union bureaucracy - we need to shift the balance away from people who either (a) want no criticism of union leaders whatsoever because it’s ‘not our role’ or (b) want to tie us to a policy of simply electing left trade union leaders. Given the balance of forces, and the fact that her organisation’s rotten positions on Palestine and Ireland will not be shared by others on the leadership, it’s a good compromise to make.8
Not all readers will be familiar with the finer points of the AWL’s approach in the unions, but it has certainly been very political. The AWL is a far more consistent in this sense than WP, with its social-imperialist outlook that it actively tries to normalise in every project in which it operates.
So much so that in 2012 AWL executive committee member Mark Osborn was willing to testify against the University and College Union in a court case that cost half a million pounds, in order to argue that the UCU should not promote any boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, on the basis that BDS is inherently “anti-Semitic”. Osborn argued that “almost all Jews are Zionists and almost all Zionists are Jews.”9 Within the AWL he defended the action when challenged by other members: “Yes, an AWL member is giving evidence. Why? Because we oppose the demonisation of Israel and Zionism in the British unions.”10
The case was thrown out by the judge on the basis that it was “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”, which showed “a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression”.11
When it comes to “rank-and-file” work in other parts of the world, the AWL’s position relies on implicit support for imperialism in the form of the United States, with its ‘stabilising’ influence, which allegedly creates an environment more amenable to working class organisation. This was no more obvious than in the AWL’s point-blank refusal to call for troops out after the invasion of Iraq. Clive Bradley laid this out in an AWL motion in 2004:
The ‘resistance’ to US/UK occupation [of Iraq] is reactionary. As things stand, the occupation cannot accurately be called ‘colonial’. The conflict is more one between the globocop of the empire of capital and local mafias and gangs.12
Sacha Ismail spelled out the implications for organising in 2006:
Of course, the occupation does not exist to protect the labour movement in any sense. But it is nonetheless true that, as against the ‘resistance’ and the gangsters, its rule and that of its sponsored government provide some very limited space for the labour movement to exist.13
When Ruth Cashman herself went to Iraq to report on a conference of trade unions in 2009, she only made a single criticism of the occupation, and that was that the pre-existing Saddam-era trade union laws had been retained. Nothing on the chaos and destruction wrought by the occupation and its effect on the way of life, let alone employment and trade union possibilities, for Iraqi workers. In fact the implication was that the occupation was on balance progressive:
The fall of Saddam Hussein enabled a tiny space for the labour movement to develop. While class organisation was illegal in that period, that did not mean that it entirely disappeared.
The remnants of political organisations retained memories of class struggle and this history gave inspiration and strength to a re-emerging Iraqi labour movement. At the conference, heroes of the strikes crushed at the beginning of the Ba’athist regime received standing ovations and brought tears to the eyes of some workers.14
But we can safely disregard all that. What matters is Cashman’s record on behalf of the “rank and file”.
Another magic phrase which WP finds just as useful in its economism as “racism” and “rank and file” is “united front”. It is a wonderfully adaptable concept, which - instead of being applied concretely to temporary alliances within the working class to gain the ear of workers under reformist leadership, as was originally intended - is applied anywhere and everywhere. In Ukraine it means in practice uncritical support for Russian nationalists, for example. But comrade Brenner employs it here to defend this shabby arrangement with the AWL:
Forming a united front on a specific question is legitimate; revolutionaries can always be accused of ‘ignoring other questions’ when they do it. If it is legitimate to form a united front with counterrevolutionary Labourites, then I’m sure we can withstand a specific agreement with the AWL.15
Leaving aside the peculiar use of “united front”, it is correct to say that it is perfectly principled to form temporary alliances over specific questions with people we disagree with. This is a tactical question.
But here we are talking about a joint electoral contest. While comrades Anderson and Cashman have put forward separate election statements, you cannot vote for one without supporting the other too. What overriding advantage is to be gained from this alliance with a social-imperialist? Oh, I forgot - Cashman is for “an anti-bureaucratic rank-and-file movement in the trade unions”. In other words, it is an alliance based on a distorted sense of priorities.
In reality it will be WP that loses out. It is bestowing militant “anti-racist” credibility upon the AWL, which will use it as just another springboard in its attempt to normalise social-imperialism within our movement. This is shambolic even for Workers Power. And, when it comes to “racism”, it seems it is all just meaningless noise from this outfit.
1. ‘Dishonesty and opportunism’, January 21.
6. Email. The full comment read: “I do not distance myself from Sean Matgamna, the article or the AWL’s position on the rise of reactionary politicised religion and the growing role of religion in world politics. The CPGB’s obsession with Sean, to the extent that their primary focus in broader formations often seems to be demanding the expulsion of Workers’ Liberty supporters, is bizarre. It suggests both a lack of confidence in your own ideas and significant hang-ups, in terms of both politics and method, from your Stalinist past.”
12. See ‘Those who side with imperialism’ Weekly Worker October 23 2014.