'Focus, everyone. Focus'

The Stop The War Coalition conference on January 11 was a step forward. However, as Mark Fischer reports, some political time bombs are ticking away inside the movement

There was a real sense of confidence amongst the 800 or so delegates and observers at the Stop The War Coalition's conference on January 11 in London's Camden Centre. There was a definite buzz in the hall. Inspiring speeches from the likes of Tony Benn and Ben Bella brought the meeting to its feet in emotional ovations - several speakers talked of "history being made". Certainly, the organisation has grounds for optimism. The September 28 demonstration last year was impressive both in terms of its size and social composition. For example, the fact that many thousands of working class muslims were mobilised is particularly positive. It opens them up to the arguments of communists and revolutionary socialists and poses the task of assimilating this section of the British population in a democratic, proletarian fashion. Which is a problem for the left with its present politics, of course. This weakness was amply illustrated in the conference's only real (though predictably truncated) debate - on our attitude to political islam and to reactionary anti-imperialism. These questions were aired thanks to the motions submitted by the Communist Party and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. Tina Becker spoke to the CPGB's resolution and laid out the political issues at stake with admirable clarity. The specific subject matter of the motion - the Mombasa bombing - might no longer have the particular urgency it once had due to the postponement of the original date for the STWC conference (from December 7 2002). Nevertheless the principles involved are of the utmost relevance. Should the movement in the UK make clear its attitude to such actions? Should we condemn indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets undertaken by reactionaries, with no discernible democratic content to their programme whatsoever? Our answer is clear, comrade Becker underlined. Yes, atrocities like Mombasa or the Bali bombing should be condemned by communists and progressives. Of course, while we do not draw an equals-sign between the forces of al-Qa'eda and western imperialism, we have to be clear that theirs is a reactionary anti-imperialism. A little later, Matt Cooper moved the AWL's motion. He rejected the charge that his organisation opposed working with muslim organisations in general. However, the politics of the Muslim Association of Britain specifically ruled it out as a bloc partner for the left. The MAB is the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the comrade asserted - a deeply reactionary fundamentalist organisation whose beliefs have "a great deal in them that is similar to fascism." The comrade was heckled throughout his speech by a section of the audience and had to pause several times to allow noise levels to subside. The CPGB comrades present also opposed this motion, but for rather different reasons to the baying Socialist Worker Party bloc on conference floor. First, we regard co-sponsorship of events with organisations such as the MAB to be a tactical question - certainly not to be ruled impermissible in principle. Second, if the MAB is capable of mobilising a section of the population that we currently cannot, then what do we lose by smoothing our way to make mass propaganda and agitation which we could otherwise not carry out? As long as communists make no political concessions to fundamentalism, as long as they actually utilise the action to make propaganda for secularism, democracy and the working class programme amongst these layers, what is the problem? A young supporter of the MAB - Jemal (see interview) - was wheeled on after comrade Cooper to present a 'fluffy' version of his organisation's politics. He largely succeeded in the first part of his speech, winning thundering applause for his rejection of the charge that his organisation - despite it being another name for the Muslim Brotherhood - was anti-women or anti-democratic. The audience, however, became noticeably more uncomfortable in the second half of his presentation, when he set about defending the Mombasa bombing and other attacks on Israeli civilians using the crass argument that every Israeli civilian is a soldier and therefore a legitimate target - in other words the only good Israeli is a dead Israeli. Predictably, leading SWPers took the opportunity to lump both motions together in an 'anti-muslim', 'semi-racist' amalgam that played well to the audience, but ignored the real political issues. In fact, CPGBers did a little heckling of our own when Chris Harman, the editor of Socialist Worker, took the mike to deliver a particularly dishonest tub-thumping reply. It is a measure of the philistine level of the culture of the left that SWP leaders like comrade Harman can get away with such speeches and not be laughed off stage. Ignoring the actual text of the CPGB resolution as well as comrade Becker's speech, he asserted that we "equated" the violence of the oppressed with that of imperialism. He finished with the rhetorical challenge to the audience - "Who are our enemies? Bush! Blair! Sharon!" "And Saddam?" CPGBers helpfully prompted the comrade at the top of their voices. Predictably, comrade Harman left his options open on that one. For the rest of the day, speakers won themselves easy ripples of applause by emphasising that they were keen on MAB involvement. But in many ways, this was a false argument. The AWL's motion actually helped deflect attention from the real issue - political concessions to fundamentalism and a soft, 'defencist' attitude to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, (even leading AWLers present conceded that their position could have been "better formulated" - an understatement). In the end, both motions were defeated - the AWL's got one vote - which meant that AWLers present at the conference did not even vote for it themselves. Ours did a little better, with around 40 delegates voting with us - bad, but not that bad, considering that we were not even allowed to come back and reply in order to clarify our stance and our attitude towards the MAB. Lindsey German set the tone for subsequent SWP interventions. We must "submerge our differences" in order to build a "big movement", she demanded. "The most important thing" was getting the "maximum number of people on the streets". We have to "focus on the main question" - "get focused on February 15", we were told. Later, after also reminding us to "stay focused", John Molyneux made the point even more explicitly. "There is nothing," he told us, "more important than the number of people we put onto the street on February 15." We can safely assume that the word 'focus' has played a prominent role in recent internal SWP briefings. However, the instructive thing to note here is how the SWP is starting to replicate - on a lower level - almost exactly the same political mistakes as 'official' communism made in its time. CPGBers cannot have been the only ones who noted the exquisite irony that Karl Dallas - a partisan of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain - won applause from SWPers when he suggested that it was "not for us" to criticise the actions of people who fought back against oppression, whatever their methods. In his time of course, comrade Dallas also thought it "not for us" to criticise the Soviet Union - or the 'official communist' Tudeh Party in Iran, as it suicidally tailed the mullahs; or the Polish 'official communist' government as it sanctioned coal exports which were used to undermine the miners' Great Strike in 1984-85, and so on. Similarly, the breathless admonishments to 'focus' on the next big action recalled the impatience of the opportunists in the Communist Party when confronted by the 'Trots' in the Vietnam anti-war movement. After all, those trouble-makers always seemed to be insisting on some 'quibble' about this or that political principle, when the key thing was to unite everyone to fight for peace. In fact, democracy and an ongoing debate on the principles that inform our work are not luxuries or an optional extra for the anti-war movement. As illustrated by the sorry fate of 'official' communism, they are indispensable. Tellingly, the sloppy technical arrangements for this conference underlined how little priority is currently placed on this. No motions were available before the day of the conference itself - they did not appear on the STWC website and office staff actually refused to send them out when CPGBers rang in. Then the day itself dawns and there are more problems. The original timetable suggested that the 26 motions submitted be discussed in a one-hour slot after lunch. Thankfully, this was changed to allow more time, but it emerged during the first report of the conference arrangements committee, immediately following Andrew Murray's opening address, that this was not going to be much help to most delegates. The chair of the CAC, Andrew Burgin, did sterling work, but his day got off to a poor start. It became clear that over half the delegates did not have the conference documents containing motions. This was a strange error. After all, the organisers must have booked London's Camden Centre with a 'ball-park' figure for attendees in mind. Why then so drastically under-produce the document that would allow them to actually be delegates, as opposed to unthinking happy clappers? Rather than any conspiracy, this seems more likely to be an unconscious reflection of the low priority accorded to the democratic workings of the movement. This was certainly underlined by comrade Murray's - shall we say - brisk approach to voting. He rattled through the motions at such a pace - throwing out rulings and fiats like confetti - that many in the audience became thoroughly confused and quite angry. This is no way to run a broad anti-war movement. Members of the coalition must insist that subsequent conferences of the organisation take its deliberations and democratic functioning seriously. A mixed day for the STWC, then. Many comrades will have taken away inspiration and a reinvigorated determination to build for February 15 - undoubtedly a potentially very important day for us all. However, important aspects of the political principles of the movement remain murky in some places and profoundly wrong in others. Mark Fischer Communist Party of Great Britain motion: This conference of the Stop the War Coalition unreservedly condemns the terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Kenya on November 29 2002. These actions have nothing to do with genuine anti-imperialism. They are reactionary atrocities that progressives condemn without hesitation. At the same time, we reject the hypocrisy of western governments and Sharon's brutal Zionist administration in Israel. Such forces have no right to condemn terrorist outrages - in fact, they produce the very hatred and alienation that finds expression in terrible events like Mombasa. Bush, Blair and Sharon are the best recruiting sergeants reactionary fundamentalism has. Failure to make our position clear on such questions can only weaken the anti-war movement. Alliance for Workers Liberty motion: The Stop the War Coalition should not in future invite the Muslim Association of Britain to co-sponsor anti-war activities. We should instead seek the broadest possible alliances within or close to the labour movement.