On the form and content of debate

Perhaps there is something a little odd going on in the ranks of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. Take, for example, Martin Thomas's rather strange letter in this issue ('Snap out it!'p2). After regurgitating some rather stale polemical points made against us at greater length by others, he mentions "the Weekly Worker's preoccupation with the AWL". Pardon? In fact, in the 11 issues of our paper July 11 to October 10, one full-page article and 18 letters were featured from AWLers - although more material was actually submitted. During the same period, the national committee of the organisation passed a 1,000-word-plus resolution on the CPGB (received by us on October 9) and Sean Matgamna - the leading theoretician of the group - produced a shambolic, 10,000-word stream of consciousness on the Communist Party (see www.workersliberty.org.uk/files/tour_de_cpgb). Now I would not dream of claiming that this is evidence of AWL 'preoccupation' or 'obsession' with the CPGB. This flurry of letters, articles, extended documents and resolutions represents a particular phase in the development of CPGB-AWL relations. I hope it is proof that more AWLers are studying our press and responding to what they read. After all, we are engaged in ongoing robust exchanges over important issues - the right of return in the Israel-Palestine conflict; perspectives for the workers' movement and the fight for a party; a Socialist Alliance paper; the supposed 'anti-semitism' of the left, etc. Certainly, nothing has changed in our general attitude to the AWL. Yes, there are clear differences of approach among our comrades about this group - as openly reported in the coverage of the September 29 CPGB aggregate (Weekly Worker October 3). Yet the CPGB remains committed to polemical clarification with the AWL, to joint initiatives where appropriate and - crucially - to work culminating in the launch of an unofficial SA paper, if the SA majority cannot be persuaded that this is vital for the survival and growth of the alliance. On the other hand, something does appear to have slightly altered the AWL's attitude, resulting in a marked increased in the comrades' sensitivity to polemical points the CPGB has been jabbing in its general direction for years now. One explanation seems plausible, from the outside at least. It appears as if leading AWLers have made a conscious, although rather ill thought-out, attempt to politically and theoretically 'tool up' their members against our organisation. Quite why this would be happening now, and in such a crude and slightly hysterical form, is a matter for AWLers to ponder. In future self-contained articles I will look at the main themes threaded through the AWL's recent polemical engagement with us. As well as our specific disagreements, I will touch upon the culture of the group and how - despite important differences which mark it out as relatively more healthy - it still shares unfortunate aspects of 'sectism' with a revolutionary left for which it professes such disdain. The purpose of this engagement will not be to sequence the AWL's DNA, but to clearly outline our approach. While a number of AWL comrades' contributions will be addressed - centrally Sean Matgamna's substantial piece - the articles will have a wider applicability than the state of relations between our two groups. Let me make some brief points about the method of polemic of the Weekly Worker, an approach AWLers seem to have become increasingly exasperated with lately. Sean puts it this way: "Weekly Worker is an uneasy combination of a Private Eye-style gossip sheet and a patchy internal bulletin of - some of - the left: what else is such a thing as reporting part of a private conversation with Mark Osborn [see Weekly Worker July 18], construing it as to make him seem to hold a political position which he does not hold - what is that but the lowest form of apolitical gossip-mongering?" (all Matgamna quotes from 'Notes on the CPGB/WW' unless otherwise stated). As an organisation, alleges the comrade, we are "enlarged with the delusory omniscience and imaginary virtue of the kibitzing village gossip, expert at everybody's business but his own". Of course, we have stamped on the limp charge of 'gossip sheet' many times before and I do not have space here to cover the 'Osborn incident' again (see Weekly Worker July 18, August 1, August 29, September 5 et al). In short, it actually underlined Weekly Worker journalists' attempt to get beneath the surface appearance of political phenomena and closer to the truth. That is our consistent method, even when a degree of extrapolation is being used. In unfortunate contrast, recent AWL polemics have had a cavalier disregard for our stated positions. This has gone as far as attributing to "the CPGB" quotes that we have never said, political positions that we have never held and actions that we have never collectively agreed or undertaken (most recently there was the 'Leeds incident' - see Jack Conrad's letter Weekly Worker October 10). Given these consistent AWL inaccuracies, I find it quite exquisitely ironic that comrade Matgamna and others take it upon themselves to lecture us on the supposed lack of probity of our polemical method. Thus comrade Osborn cautions us that political judgements must only be made on "political documents, speeches, etc". Similarly, Martin Thomas testily advises that "if [MF wants] to contribute usefully "¦ [he] should do it by responding to our documents" (Weekly Worker September 12). We have illustrated in our replies to Mark, Martin and other AWL comrades the philistine nature of this approach - and how it is calculated to produce inaccuracies in reporting politics. But what are we to make of our AWL critics' chronic inability to get our politics right - whether from published documents or the structured political exchanges we have had with their comrades? As Jack Conrad has remarked in the course a different spat with comrade Thomas, "polemical exchanges become sterile if one side refuses to listen to, and thereby properly and constructively reply to, the actual argument" (Weekly Worker February 28). Here are some particularly salient examples of recent wide-of-the mark AWL polemical attacks on us: l Sean writes that he "was astounded when I discovered that you still hold to the line on Afghanistan which you held when you were Stalinists". Frankly, so was I. In fact, since the early 1990s, the majority of our organisation has broken from a position of regarding the USSR as some form of workers' state - if anything, our previous stance had far more of 'Trotskyism' about it than 'Stalinism', comrade Matgamna. Although we have not had a major debate in the organisation on the Afghan question since, our new understanding of the Soviet Union obviously implies a fundamental reassessment of the role of the Red Army. Yes, we still regard the 1979 overturn, led by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, to have been a revolution. But - as we have written - not a proletarian revolution of any sort. So, first, we were not "Stalinists" in 1981, when we begun publishing. And, second, our politics on this issue have clearly changed from the time when we held a rather 'Trot' line. l Comrade Matgamna claims that we charge the AWL with having a "syndicalist opposition", consisting of people such as Mark Osborn and Jill Mountford. This is "very odd", Sean shakes his head sadly at us. "Where does that come from?" Beats me, comrade. We certainly do not appear to have written it. And indeed, although this phrase is placed inside quotation marks and repeated in that format several times, it is not referenced. So I presume comrade Matgamna does not know either. In fact, I have quickly checked back over nearly three years of exchanges with the AWL and cannot find anything that approximates to the phrase. In general, what we have written is far more nuanced and conditional: ""¦ the lines of demarcation we have pointed to - although still fuzzy - are real. Of course, by applying two categorical poles - the 'economists' and the 'politicians' to them, we probably assign a degree of purity and hardness to them that they do not yet have. In that sense, we are one step ahead of the unfolding of what exists" (Weekly Worker September 5). Of course, I may have missed a quote somewhere, but the above passage accurately reflects our attempt to get to grips with the evolving politics of the AWL and how it manifests itself in the ranks of the leadership and organisation as a whole. Could an AWLer point us in the direction of where we have posited a fully formed "syndicalist opposition" in your organisation? If not, who is Sean quoting and from where? Sean explains the purpose of his document thus: "Because I believe it would in principle, other things being equal, be possible for the AWL and CPGB/WW "¦ to unite in one organisation, I want to get to grips with you politically." This is laudable, but getting to grips with the CPGB actually requires examining what we say and write, not what we might have said and written if we had different politics. l Despite the fact that the comrade recalls debating with us "half a dozen or more times in the last few years", he unfortunately seems to have taken in very little of what we said at the time. For example, on the question of the monarchy, comrade Matgamna suspects that our "strange vision of Britain here can only be understood in terms of the old Stalinist dogmas about a two-stage revolution, even in advanced countries". We imagine - in some weird, "subconscious" way - that the "'bourgeois democratic revolution' has yet to be completed in Britain". This "strange notion" was "in circulation outside the Stalinist ranks, amongst the New Left Review people, in the mid-60s "¦" Of course, we are aware of the Nairn-Anderson thesis on the 'unfinished' nature of the bourgeois revolution. This is why we have spent well over a decade polemicising against it and its mirror reflection on the revolutionary left. Trawling through back issues of our paper, you would be spoilt for choice in articles that address precisely this question, at considerable length and depth. Anyone who has followed our material even half-seriously will be aware of this. For example, in the third meeting between reps of our two organisations, we were asked by the AWL's Paul Hampton: "Do you think the bourgeois revolution in Britain has been completed? Are you Nairnites?" (Weekly Worker September 28 2000). He was bluntly told , no, we were not 'Nairnites'. The minutes then record two long contributions from comrade John Bridge and myself, where we outline precisely why we believe such an idea to be false and how - significantly - some of its mechanical theoretical premises are actually shared by the revolutionary left in its approach to democratic questions. Now, we may be profoundly wrong. Perhaps our position does 'subconsciously' adopt the Nairn-Anderson template. But if that is the case, then it is presumably incumbent on comrade Matgamna to show how. Instead, we simply have it asserted. He lazily ascribes a political position to us without reference either to the material we have written over the years or to the structured exchanges we have actually had with the AWL over this very question. Martin Thomas' distortions are less grandiose, but his letter still groans under the weight of them. l He suggests that the Weekly Worker (not even the author of the particular report) states that the AWL's "only use for the Socialist Alliance is 'the opportunity to attack the SWP'" (my emphasis). In fact, the quote is taken from the speech of John Bridge to our September 29 aggregate. He said that "leading AWL comrades openly state that the alliance is mainly useful in that it provides them with the opportunity to attack the SWP" (my emphasis, October 3). This is something we have reported on before, with no objection from AWLers. Why the fuss now? l The comrade heavily implies that since a sharp exchange over the viability of a Socialist Alliance newspaper (see Weekly Worker February 28), the CPGB has 'hidden' from serious debate with the AWL. "Since then," he disingenuously states, "we have found it pretty much impossible to get organised political discussions with the CPGB". In fact, it was we who initiated the latest meeting between reps of the two organisations, after considerable chasing of AWL comrades - something that can be verified by email records and the minutes of our leadership. Now, we simply assume from this that leading comrades in the AWL are - like us - busy people. However, the fact that we eventually met and agreed a series of three joint national schools to begin in the new year indicates an ongoing commitment to serious "organised political discussion" on the part of both organisations, we would suggest. But why the flimsy implication from comrade Thomas that we are in flight from the harsh polemical lash of the AWL? It convinces no one, is easily disproved and unfortunately redolent of the distasteful methods of some of the puffed-up sects on the British revolutionary left. The examples I highlight here are just the thin end of the wedge. In a forthcoming article, we will lay out our actual views on the matters that Sean and other leading AWLers have raised. Our aim is to move the debate onto a higher level and hopefully calm it down a little. AWL comrades that are interested in engaging with the CPGB's real politics, rather than clumsy parodies of them, will then have the chance to do so. Furthermore, the issues we will try to clarify have significance beyond the immediate points of controversy between our two groups - despite many healthy attributes as an organisation, the AWL's programmatic method is generally symptomatic of what is wrong with much of today's revolutionary left's politics. Mark Fischer