Sectarian amateurism and the complacent world of Sean Matgamna - part 4

As shown comprehensively in each successive part of this series of articles, Sean Matgamna - the patriarch of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - readily, almost habitually, resorts to crude demagogy when he tries to combat the CPGB. He garbles, shams, misrepresents, fabricates and lies. What he does by way of twisting and perverting the truth on issues such as our understanding of bureaucratic socialism in the 1980s, the April 1978 Afghanistan revolution and the national questions in Ireland and Israel/Palestine is repeated with spades when it comes to the "party we need". Let us begin with the AWL's "syndicalist opposition" - the double quote marks are supplied by comrade Matgamna - supposedly led by his lieutenants Mark Osborn and Jill Mountford. The comrade huffs and puffs and brilliantly succeeds in blowing down a straw house - poor man, the insubstantial construction is entirely of his own making. In fact comrade Matgamna's whole presentation on this particular subject is elusive, blundering, tortured and lightweight. He demands to know where we got such a funny idea from. Conclusion: the devious CPGB has simply invented the "syndicalist opposition" out of malign intent and to stir up trouble. Yet despite all his literary efforts time and again the truth peeks out from behind the verbal smog. According to Matgamna's own account, what we supposedly call the AWL's "syndicalist opposition" is centred on a distinct coolness, not to say hostility, towards the Socialist Alliance. "You observe," he says, "that we are not all equally enthusiastic about the SA, or equally involved in it, or equally happy to be linked to the popular frontist SWP" (unless otherwise stated all quotes from comrade Matgamna are taken from his 'Critical notes/WW'). By the way, this barbed remark about being "happy" to be "linked" to the "popular frontist" Socialist Workers Party is typical of comrade Matgamna's schizoid political method, and, yes, he once again puts it down to our "Stalinist past" - "If you had properly emancipated yourselves from your Stalinist past, you might find our concern over such things as the SWP's popular frontism easier to understand," he explains. Clearly what Matgamna abandons by way of honesty he replaces with artifice, quackery and pretension. The results are comic. Leave aside comrade Matgamna's own "Stalinist past" - he was once a member of the Young Communist League - after which he joined Gerry Healy's "openly crazy" Socialist Labour League. Where do we find him till December 1971? Along with a tiny band of followers, calling themselves the Workers' Fight tendency, comfortably ensconced within the forerunner of the "popular frontist" SWP, the International Socialists. Sean Matgamna "happily" sat on the central committee. In that light I would submit that comrade Matgamna is not only a peddler of cheap lies, but suffers from selective memory loss. However, instead of delving further into his kaleidoscopic factional history - the merger and almost instant split with Workers Power; the lauding of Labourite cold war warriors; the alliance with, and then loathing of, Ken Livingstone; the courtship of the International Socialist Group and the bitter recriminations which followed, etc - we shall concentrate on the sorry mix of half-truths and half-untruths presented above concerning the AWL's so-called "syndicalist opposition". No Weekly Worker writer, certainly not this one, has ever referred, directly or indirectly, to a "syndicalist opposition" in the Matgamna group. The word "syndicalist" has never been used in such a context. What we have repeatedly said - on countless public platforms and openly in print - is that the AWL as a whole is characterised, not by syndicalism, but economism. What is meant by economism? Economism is not only the worshipping of strikes and trade union politics as being the highway to socialist consciousness and the consequent elevating of economic over communist politics. Economism is also the downplaying of democratic demands: eg, the right of nations to self determination, the abolition of the monarchy and the demand for a republic. What is true of the AWL is true for the left in general - SWP, Morning Star, International Socialist Group, Workers Power, Socialist Party in England and Wales, etc. The AWL is by no means the most obvious offender. It does occasionally headline democratic questions. Fact. No dispute. But, as can easily be shown, it is undoubtedly inconsistently democratic. Put another way, the AWL represents a sophisticated, less crude and more pernicious form of economism. Hence at the Socialist Alliance's March 10 2001 Birmingham conference the AWL put forward a series of "priority pledges" for the forthcoming general election campaign which were, as we said at the time, "caged within narrow trade unionism" - "an emergency plan" for workers and jobless; taxing the rich and slashing the "arms budget"; the restoration of "benefits and pensions"; an expansion of "public services"; the "right to join a union"; "companies threatening closures" should be nationalised (quoted in J Conrad Towards a Socialist Alliance party London October 2001, p44). Boldly and directly challenge the existing monarchical state that rules over us? Definitely not. And the comrades still feign surprise, even indignation, when we dub them economists! Spellbound by economistic 'common sense', the AWL voted en bloc against prioritising the demand for the abolition of the constitutional monarchy system. And even when it was prepared to countenance key democratic demands in our policy statement - a republic, Scottish and Welsh self-determination, a united Ireland, abolishing the House of Lords, establishing a democratic federal Europe - when it came to priorities, economics always won out. Against this backdrop there is no reason for any of us to write about an economistic opposition, let alone a "syndicalist opposition" within the AWL. And, of course, we did no such thing. But that does not stop comrade Matgamna putting double quote marks around the phrase and laying a long and winding trial of tangled humbug and cant. What we have noticed is that, yes, as comrade Matgamna cannot but admit, there are those in the AWL who are what might be called 'warmer' towards the Socialist Alliance and those who are 'colder'. From observing the AWL at close quarters I have concluded that what exists is two loose, uncrystalised wings - and not only vis-à -vis the Socialist Alliance. When it comes to prioritising trade union over communist politics, there are likewise the 'warms' and the 'colds' or, to employ the established language of Leninism, the 'hard' economists and the 'soft' economists. Comrade Matgamna gets himself into a hopeless mess. On the one hand he describes our characterisation as "daft" and "not only entirely inaccurate, but very, very odd". On the other we read him vaingloriously boasting of his "living organisation" and its "thinking people" who differ to "degrees" on issues such as the Socialist Alliance. He wants it both ways. There are no 'warms' or 'colds', there are 'warms' and 'colds'. Nevertheless he defensively lets slip that the real differences in the AWL are "implicit". And then blurts out that these "differences of approach" towards the Socialist Alliance, "it is true, may at a later stage become important". Eureka! Aware of the incoherence of his argument, the comrade tries to escape from the dilemma by resentfully turning on the CPGB. In common parlance it is called killing the messenger. Incidentally though, comrade Matgamna believes he has inflicted a painful wound and has us crying out for vengeance - fantastically that is how he explains the Leeds incident - nothing could be further from the truth. Studying 'Critical notes' does not engender anger in me: rather pity for a talented author who has sunk so low. What does he have to say about the CPGB and our public exposure of the AWL's hard and soft economists? Comrade Matgamna snarls that "it is one of the characteristics of the sectarian pedant in politics that he tries to anticipate such possible future differences in a pre-emptive, artificial and usually destructive way". Naturally the "sectarian pedant" in this case is the Weekly Worker, along with its journalists. Au contraire, comrade Matgamna. One of the prime tasks of the committed revolutionary writer at this low point of our movement is to bring out into the harsh light of day differences which at present exist in protoplasmic, or incipient, form but which subsequently could perhaps be a matter of life or death. A couple of examples will suffice. A widely read and respected leftwing historian wearily argues that maybe on balance communists should forget about the utopian dream of socialism and settle instead for a reformed, democratic capitalism. Is it 'sectarian pedantry' to denounce them and aggressively undermine their reputation? Not in my view. By the same measure, under the guise of Marxist orthodoxy, a prominent editor insinuates that the struggle for democracy under the conditions of advanced capitalism is secondary, irrelevant or a diversion. Is it 'sectarian pedantry' to disown and rigorously oppose this anti-Marxist twaddle? Again, not in my view. Admittedly such polemics are "pre-emptive". In the main they serve to ward off future dangers to our movement when once again it becomes a real social force. And we make no apology whatsoever for being "destructive". Better to exterminate wrong ideas now, when they operate as a mere germ, than passively waiting around for them to grow into a lethal contagion. The Belgian writer Marcel Liebman quotes an apposite remark by Jules Martov on the role of Iskra over the years 1900-03. Martov testifies that he and his fellow editors strove "to make sure that 'all that is ridiculous' appears in a 'ridiculous form'", and "to expose 'the very embryo of a reactionary idea hidden behind a revolutionary phrase'" (M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1975, p29). Lenin, as Liebman notes, was especially to "excel" in this polemical method. And I am sure that is why in defence of Lenin's method one of our contemporaries has this to say: "Remember, in his time Lenin was often called a sectarian pedant" (Workers' Liberty January 1999). Only a few years ago that same writer - you guessed right: it is comrade Matgamna - could enthusiastically call for "unity" with SPEW, Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party and the "popular frontist" SWP. In that praiseworthy spirit he looked forward to the day when we have "a joint weekly paper of the activist left" (Workers' Liberty January 1999). Spot on. Proposals such as these were, of course, abstract, eminently safe and cost him nothing ... but he was definitely on the right tracks. What form has "unity" of the revolutionary left taken? The answer is obvious. The Socialist Alliance. So the Socialist Alliance is neither a minor feature on today's still bleak political landscape nor something for the remote future. It is an established achievement, a genuine gain: ie, the concrete manifestation of the real, living and ongoing struggle to unite the revolutionary left in a project to form a mass revolutionary party of the working class. Now comrade Matgamna and his co-thinkers are confronted by the much more difficult, testing but rewarding task of dealing with the flawed and frustrating reality of the half-formed Socialist Alliance. That is why we are so disappointed and exasperated when we hear comrade Matgamna contemptuously dismissing the Socialist Alliance on CPGB-AWL platforms as a mere SWP "electoral front" and predicting its "inevitable" demise. Being 'cool' on the Socialist Alliance is to take a reactionary, or sectarian, attitude towards the left in Britain. And our task is certainly to expose those who wrote with heated passion and seeming sincerity in 1999 about how we must "begin to unite the revolutionary left", but who in 2002 frostily recoil from the reality they have actually helped to shape and bring this far. Yes, criticise the many shortcomings and SWP misleadership of the Socialist Alliance. Not to do so would be irresponsible, smug and self-defeating. But all the while we shall continue to single-mindedly fight to take unity the whole way: to that "special machine", to the "party we need" (Workers' Liberty January 1999). Fetishism Comrade Matgamna proclaims himself utterly perplexed by our description of the work, especially the trade union work, carried out by the AWL, indeed all of the left groups, as "amateurish". He comments that a "useful indication" of the "fetishistic way you function in politics" is "your strange choice" of the word "amateur" with which you "repeatedly describe our trade union work". The comrade regales us with his Quixotic journey to enlightenment. When he "first" came across the CPGB's use of this term to "dismiss our trade union work", comrade Matgamna claims that "momentarily" he "forgot who I was dealing with, and took it at its everyday meaning". Something in "our trade union work" struck some of you as "amateurish". So the comrade thought, "maybe that an issue of one of our trade union bulletins struck you as badly produced, or something like that." Next he feels emotionally aggrieved. How dare the CPGB criticise the AWL? After all, while "some of your members are in trade unions", they do no "organised communist trade union work at all". And when the CPGB starts doing "our sort of trade union work", surely one would expect that work would, at least initially, be "more, not less amateurish than ours is". Finally the penny drops. The CPGB's method in politics is to mindlessly transcribe, crib and copy Lenin and the Bolsheviks without bothering to study the conditions that apply in 21st century Britain. Lenin used the word "amateurish" in What Is to Be done? and so the CPGB and its writers simply resort to the term in order to give what we say a 'Leninist' authority. It has nothing to do with the trade union work of the AWL and the other left groups in Britain. No, it is merely a fetish, what comrade Matgamna calls a "special" Lenin word, which is used as an "auxiliary psychological buttressing for yourselves and those who will get the reference". The reader's patience will be tried to breaking point by now. It is all childish and worryingly inept. So let us ask three straightforward questions. One, confronted by the fragmented state of the left in Britain, the countless bureaucratic centralist sect regimes and their completely marginal and barely noticeable impact on the working class, is it true that all we do is search for a "plausible" parallel in Lenin and - "hey presto" - we have all the answers? Is it true that we "denounce" the trade union and other work of the left groups? Is it true that we "ignore the economic class struggle and the British labour movement"? The verifiable answer to these three questions is no, no and no. Communists certainly study the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and other outstanding revolutionary theorists/practitioners. And we have made considerable efforts to clear away the combination of myth and muck that has been attached to their ideas over the long decades of reaction and counterrevolution. That does not mean that we imagine for one moment that Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc have all the answers. That would be silly. But not to critically engage with their writings and their practice is to consciously or unconsciously disarm ourselves today. And that is exactly what comrade Matgamna does. By dismissing our application of Marxism to the present state of the left and its woeful primitivism and lack of social impact, he puts himself in the position of excusing, conniving with and perpetuating the palpable backwardness that holds back and blunts all our efforts. The CPGB's answer to the existing state of affairs is to work step by step towards the unity of the serious left groups into a single organisation, a revolutionary organisation which operates according to the authentic principles of democratic centralism - that is, unity in action and freedom of criticism. Concretely that finds expression in our fight for a Socialist Alliance party. And as a means to that end we have also proposed a common Socialist Alliance political paper. To begin with a weekly, but as soon as feasible a daily. Failing an official go-ahead for that move, an unofficial Socialist Alliance paper should be launched - maybe jointly sponsored by the CPGB and the AWL (significantly and thankfully a number of prominent AWL comrades have signed the call for such a paper). What about the CPGB and how we "denounce" the trade union and other such work of the left groups? This is simply untrue. Denunciation by the CPGB of trade union work inhabits and haunts comrade Matgamna's overactive imagination, not reality. However, any objective observer casting even a casual eye over the work of the left groups, including their trade union work, must surely conclude that all the precious resources spent in terms of money and time and the energy expended is dissipated by the overarching domination of economism and the existence of a multitude of competing publications and campaigns. Okay, take work in the field of trade unions. The Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain has its Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions; the SLP sponsored a rival, the United Campaign for the Repeal of Anti-Trade Union Laws. The SWP has its 'rank and file' bulletins; so does the AWL. Postal Worker as opposed to Post Worker. SPEW promotes its broad lefts against those of factional opponents. Meanwhile the Socialist Alliance's trade union fractions exist on paper and do little or nothing ... and strike figures still hover around a statistical all-time low. Faced with such a dire situation, which chews up and spits out one levy of recruits after another, what do we propose? Democratic organisation and centralisation. Our immediate aim is to concentrate all current efforts under the auspices of Socialist Alliance fractions and as quickly as possible a Socialist Alliance party. Then we can greatly expand, properly plan and accurately target what is now being done. Put another way, transform the ineffective, sectish amateurism that blights present-day work into effective, revolutionary professionalism. In the meantime do we dismiss or "denounce" what is being done? No, we do not. Do we "ignore the economic class struggle and the British labour movement"? Once again, no, as any regular reader of the Weekly Worker knows full well. For example, look at the excellent and extensive coverage of the firefighters' dispute. However, to sit back, self-satisfied, and brag about a couple of trade union bulletins is to constitute oneself part of the problem, not the answer. Comrade Matgamna's pooh-poohing of our criticism of existing trade union work by the various tiny and competing left groups is to give a theoretical gloss, or veneer, to backwardness. My bet would be that if he were alive today Lenin would either be livid or, more likely, he would burst out in mocking laughter. Let us get real. Squarely and fearlessly face the facts as they are, call things by their proper names and stop making stupid-clever excuses. That is Marxism, comrade Matgamna, and it is exactly what Lenin did in his Where to begin? and What is to be done? In these model examples of Marxist analysis Lenin discussed the sorry experience of the localist, free-wheeling and short-lived Marxist circles in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. Most of them survived for a matter of only a few months before they fell victim to the tsarist secret police, the okhrana. Lenin did not belittle these comrades. Nor did he dismiss their factory leaflets and attempts to go to the working class. He did though denounce the amateurism that ruined their efforts and saw a generation of fine revolutionaries exiled to the Siberian wildernesses. More than that, he positively came forward with answers to properly equip our side and turn the tables on tsarism. Centralise, professionalise and extend efforts - first of all through the publication of an all-Russian political paper. This paper had to be published abroad and smuggled into the country. Openness of ideas would be guaranteed, as would the commitment to ruthlessly combat economism, localism and all forms of pseudo-Marxism. The working class could only liberate itself by taking the lead in the struggle for democracy. Tsarism, not the employer, was the main, immediate enemy. Convince the advanced layers of that and you could really start to talk about revolution. To make the plan for an all-Russian political paper a reality and subsequently use it as the framework for mass influence amongst the population as a whole required a division of labour and a system of appointment from above. Full-time agents would not be elected from below. Self-preservation forbade it. Playing at democracy would be playing into the hands of tsarism. In parallel Lenin viewed his paper as the magnetic force that would unite all serious Marxists in a fully unified revolutionary party. By force of circumstances that party would initially have to be a cadre organisation, an organisation of what Lenin called "professional revolutionaries" (VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, p469). As everyone knows, the common political paper came to fruition under the name of Iskra and in 1902-3 the Iskraites succeeded in bringing together of the majority of Marxist groups, trends and cadre in Russia for the 2nd, formation, congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, first in Brussels, then in London - the 1898 congress being abortive. The rest, as they say, is history. Mimicry Comrade Matgamna waves aside everything we have written about the state of the left in Britain today - the amateurism, the duplication, the sectism, the economism - and presumably the plan for a Socialist Alliance party outlined in my recent book. It is, he splutters and curses, nothing more than "mantras, mimicry and mummery". After all we only crudely and lamentably copy Lenin's What is to be done? he insists. Froth and nonsense. I would be quite prepared to plead guilty as charged and fall on my knees asking for the patriarch's kind forgiveness and benign mercy if - and it is a big 'if' - what had been presented in Towards a Socialist Alliance party and elsewhere was really premised on early 20th century Russian and not early 21st century British conditions. For example, it would be insane to regard appointment over elections as a principle. It is not. Democracy is infinitely preferable. Appointment was an exceptional measure in Russia, dictated by tsarism and severe repression. Likewise the demand that membership criteria exclude all except professional revolutionaries. No fixed principle is involved and certainly my book argues for a wide membership and a thorough-going, top to bottom system of elections and recallability. The executive committee, regional committees, local committees and all officers should be regularly, usually annually, elected and be subject to recall by the whole, or their peers, at any time. When conditions altered in Russia, Lenin had no compunction about junking antiquated formulas which now constituted a barrier to further advance. Once the 1905 revolution broke out and the broad masses flooded into direct political activity, Lenin rightly demanded extensive party democracy and fought to open up its ranks to the risen proletariat. Often, it has to be said, against the stubborn resistance of the professional revolutionaries, the "committee men" who were wedded to the letter, though not the method, of What is to be done? The same general approach applies to our proposed common Socialist Alliance paper. We have no demented wish to relive the past and see the thing published in Ireland or France and smuggled into Britain using various clever means. Okay, comrade Matgamna, got that? The freedom to publish exists in Britain and there are plenty of friendly leftwing print shops and publishing houses. So what we have emphasised is not the necessity of copying Russian smuggling techniques. No, what we have said is that the material resources for realising such a long overdue project exist in abundance. The five principal Socialist Alliance supporting organisations produce between them three rival weekly papers and two monthlies. Pool the journalists, the finances, the distribution networks. Then we would possess a voice which could really hope to gain a mass audience from amongst the class-conscious workers. Then we could really build an ideologically united and politically effective Socialist Alliance party. Comrade Matgamna would be well advised to separate what is specific to 1900-05 in Lenin's Where to begin? and What is to be done? from what is general. What is Russian from what can be - and as a matter of urgency should be - laid hold of and wielded for our purposes in the conditions of Britain in the here and now. The evident refusal of comrade Matgamna to do just that produces a self-inflicted stupidness. It also testifies to a bizarre unwillingness to apply the rich lessons of our movement. Jack Conrad * Leeds, lies and Owen MacThomas - part 1 * Afghanistan and Owen MacThomas - part 2 * National questions and the AWL patriarch - part 3