AWL divisions clear

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty's annual weekend school, Ideas for Freedom, held over the weekend of July 13-14 in north London, was a successful event. Some 170 people attended over the two days. A good turnout, although down on the 300-plus the organisation use to pull to comparable events in the early 1990s, according to leading AWLer Mark Osborn. An interesting timetable of 22 meetings was featured, ranging from openings on the situation in Italy with Rifondazione Comunista, through Clive Bradley's discussion of Buffy the vampire-slayer and fantasy TV, to a thought-provoking session on anti-social behaviour in working class estates with Janine Booth. The event also featured debates on some key areas of controversy on the left - the fight against fascism in Britain and France, the rise of a new left in the unions and its relationship to Labour and - crucially - the future prospects of the Socialist Alliance. All the meetings were conducted openly and there was willingness to facilitate the expression of critical views. In some sessions, this meant an individual dissenter being given extra time to defend their position, or to come back on the numerous interventions against them. This is healthy and in line with our practice. Indeed, we should take it as an important joint challenge to make it an aspect of the left's general culture. Communist Party members took part in the event over the two days and generally received a friendly, if a little wary, response. The degree of distance seemed to be inversely proportionate to age and time spent in the group. After some silly initial misconceptions had been corrected, discussions with younger comrades tended to be more fruitful, comradely and open. Some of the exchanges with longer-term cadre were quite sterile and - unfortunately - seemed to indicate that they were the primary source of many of the mistaken ideas about our organisation. This was illustrated quite beautifully in the debate on 'Where is the Socialist Alliance going?' with Alison Brown (AWL), Marcus Ström (CPGB) and Will McMahon (SA independent). Comrade Brown set out an essentially localist perspective, with heavy emphasis on "making local alliances work" between elections, the production of local newsletters and so on. As comrade Ström pointed out, while this sort of work is valuable, it will not save the project. He recalled that it had been political initiative from the top that had made the alliance real in the first place, had pushed it towards all of its really ambitious electoral interventions and had accounted for its impact in the unions on the political fund, etc. However, the meeting really sparked up after an intervention from a leading AWLer, comrade Jill Mountford. She took strong exception to comrade Ström's mildly expressed evaluation of the political balance in the AWL over the SA. He had suggested that there was a political difference over the project, with one trend expressing a degree of hostility, while the minority was much more positive - an idea we have floated previously in these pages, identifying comrades Mountford and Osborn with the 'anti' wing. He called on all AWLers present to join the SA, to make it a focus for all their work and to stop treating the initiative as 'just another' arena of intervention, alongside student work, the trade unions, or anti-capitalism. This, he suggested, was to replicate the fractured sectarian method of the Socialist Workers Party. Comrade Mountford launched an energetic attack on the CPGB and the Weekly Worker - a paper she wouldn't sell "if it was the last left newspaper on earth". This rag was full of "gossip". "Now, I quite like gossip - I'm a woman," she told us. But not in what purports to be a political newspaper. While the Weekly Worker featured this sort of nonsense every week, there was no chance for a jointly sponsored, unofficial SA publication, an initiative comrade Ström had identified as of central importance. Boringly familiar charges that we abstain from trade union work and from campaigning activity in general were then trotted out once again. "That was a little harsh," commented one leading Nottingham comrade to me after Jill had sat down. 'Harsh' is not quite the right word. Although I found it intensely annoying, comrade Mountford's intervention had the merit of illustrating the divisions between us and in her own organisation very vividly. It was an admirably clear, succinctly expressed contribution of almost chemically pure sectarianism. Clearly, when the Weekly Worker tentatively identified an anti-SA trend involving comrades Mountford and Osborn, we were correct. Both comrades appear quite indignant about the characterisation and were at pains to challenge our comrades about it from the very first day of their school - ironically, both confirming the veracity of the observation nearly every time they opened their mouths. I had not been in the school 10 minutes before comrade Osborn had cornered me for an illuminating 'chat' on the subject. Highlights of this exchange were Mark's characterisation of a leading SWPer prominent in the SA as a "sectarian pig" today, a "sectarian pig" throughout his political career and - I presume - a "sectarian pig" until the day he leaves us for the land of the dead. He recited a litany of SWP crimes against the workers' movement domestically and internationally over the decades and topped it all off with a characterisation of the SA as nothing more than a cynical "SWP electoral front". In conversation after her spiky intervention, comrade Mountford also agreed with me that she was markedly "cooler" than other AWL comrades on the alliance. In other words, we were essentially correct in identifying these two with an anti-SA trend. Is this "gossip" then? As I understand the term, 'gossip' in its benign form is idle or casual chatter; in its more unpleasant manifestation, malicious and unfounded rumour-mongering about people. Now, quite how a correct characterisation of the political positions of individual leaders of important revolutionary groups on key questions facing the movement is meant to constitute 'gossip'I am really not sure. Nor, I suspect, are the people who throw this charge at us. This was illustrated in an entertaining piece of political farce towards the end of the session on the SA. Summing up, comrade Ström offered Jill £100 for the coffers of the AWL if she could identify a single piece of gossip in that week's issue of the Weekly Worker (July 4). Comrade Mountford promptly marched to the front of the hall, snatched up a copy from the front table and stalked back to her seat to oblige us, to the cheers of her AWL comrades. Only the punch line never came. She spent the rest of the session with her head buried in its pages looking with increasing desperation for an example. She could not find one; comrade Ström's money stayed in his pocket. "OK, this issue is better than most - but every other week "¦," she lamely told me after the meeting. Clearly, there is contradiction ticking away inside the AWL. This organisation does have a relatively healthy democratic culture. Yet this is combined with - at its worst - a form of sect insularity that can smack of the SWP on a bad day. I have parodied this in the past as an attitude that says, 'We in the AWL have a healthy, open, non-sectarian and democratic culture in comparison with most of the left - so fuck the lot of 'em.' The implication seems to be that the growth of the AWL as the AWL is the answer to the party question in contemporary Britain. But, if they have to cooperate with anyone, it seems some comrades would prefer more or less any other group on the British left rather than ours. So, while a minority of AWLers are clearly impatient to push forward the project of closer ties and joint work with the CPGB, others obviously wish that we would just go away. Again this was illustrated in an aerated exchange with a leading AWL comrade. To underline the extent to which people's views can change and thus why designating SWP leaders as irredeemable "sectarian pigs" is not mature politics, I recited some of the awful things I once believed as a young Stalinist. "Yeah, and you're still 90% a Stalinist," I was seriously informed. Given the AWL's Stalinophobe proclivities, this would not seem to hold out much hope for an ongoing fruitful dialogue and eventual unity. Thankfully, there are other voices in the organisation. Amongst some comrades - both in our group and the AWL - there is a genuine hunger for merger. This is healthy in its way, but we must have a purposive unity, not simply unity as a 'nice' thing in itself. Concretely, a coming together around the promotion of a genuine partyist project is key. In today's conditions, this can only mean making the fight in and around the SA central to all our work. The school was an excellent event and CPGB comrades learned a great deal from participation in both its formal sessions and in more off-the-cuff exchanges. Given our common commitment to open educational events such as this and the forthcoming Communist University, we should explore more imaginatively the possibilities of further joint schools and forums. Mark Fischer