Covering fire

The joint Communist Party-Alliance for Workers' Liberty school took place on Saturday January 25. At least, we think it did...

There were two instructive moments in Sean Matgamna's opening speech to the CPGB-AWL event at the weekend. First, while in full flow against the tendency he saw in Jack Conrad to present himself as an all-seeing prophet, he was interrupted by howls of laughter from assembled CPGBers when he dubbed our comrade someone who imagines himself to "a Lenin" who "very often doesn't bother to accurately quote what his opponent is actually saying". (For examples of comrade Matgamna's own rigorous adherence to polemical probity, see his rambling, unreferenced 'Critical notes on the CPGB/WW'.) More importantly, having surveyed at length our perfidious nature, he concluded that our political incoherence rules out the possibility of rational politics, it rules out the possibility of unification, it even rules out - beyond a certain level - the possibility of loyal collaboration between the two groups. This comment, along with the palpable feeling that we were actually involved in the final act of an AWL anti-unity campaign rather than a day school, adds weight to a suspicion that many CPGBers had at the start of the day. Perhaps the storm of accusations, fabrications, distortions and downright lies lobbed in our direction during this period of increasingly fraught relations has actually been covering fire for a retreat from engagement - not simply with the CPGB, but perhaps with the left in the form of the Socialist Alliance. In this context, it strikes us as interesting that the interventions of AWL speakers appeared to have been orchestrated before the day itself. At the end of the presentations from Sean Matgamna and John Bridge, the meeting's chair, comrade Terry Liddle of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, had a list handed to him by the AWL's Martin Thomas. This detailed his organisation's speakers, in the order they were to be called. Now we are all in favour of being organised, but this smacks to us of a disciplined intervention in an ongoing anti-unity campaign rather an open and honest participation in a day school. AWL comrades thus seemed to know what they wanted to say - and in the order they were going to say it - before our speaker had actually said a word. Unsurprisingly therefore, the tone and content of many of these comrades' interventions - like Sean's opening itself - had a strangely 'timeless' feel to them. They were not responses to what had been said on the day. They gave the distinct impression of being an orchestrated attack on a caricature version of our politics that could have been presented at any time over the last six months or so. AWLers' contributions tended to sound more like set-piece speeches that had taken little or no account of the substantial polemic as it has developed in the pages of this paper, for instance. Now, in many ways this was rather distasteful to watch and helped spice up an already tetchy atmosphere. However, our comrades certainly did gain an object lesson in what is wrong with the sect culture of much of the left, the AWL included unfortunately. Thus the various appraisals as to which group came out on top - "a score-draw", "one-nil"; to either side, depending on who is making the evaluation - are very misplaced. Our two organisations were actually playing totally different games. The event had been preceded by a build-up of tension. As we have documented in this paper, certain elements of the AWL have been running a low-level anti-unity campaign of provocation against the CPGB over the essentially trivial Leeds incident. Repeated attempts by our organisation to file the incident under "cock-up" and to move on to address the more substantive political questions dividing us were repeatedly refused. In the words of Martin Thomas in reply to an email of mine pressing him for a date for the first of what was envisaged as a series of schools, he told us that concrete plans for educationals "may have to wait. We definitely want to discuss politics; on the other hand, in our view relations are not quite normal … we are not prepared to take the 'no-platforming’ in Leeds …” (email, November 1 2002). Readers are reminded that the original accusation was that - stung by the polemical acid of comrade Matgamna's 'Critical notes' - we organised to have comrade Matgamna politically “mugged and ambushed”; that the “leadership of the CPGB 'planned’ to embarrass and mug Sean”; that “collectively” the CPGB “acted, in part out of spite,” to “no-platform” the man. In the event, most AWLers thought better of any serious attempt to defend this bilge. Indeed, some AWLers in the audience even became theatrically exasperated when our main speaker, John Bridge, briefly outlined our defence against these scurrilous charges. In conversations outside the hall, others made it plain that they regarded the charge as ludicrous and not worth even talking about. Sean Matgamna himself did not cover it in detail in his speech and only Martin Thomas attempted some sort of energetic attack on us. For his trouble, he got some embarrassed squirming on his own side, derisive laughter and cutting heckles from ours. The issue is dead, in other words. It should never have wasted so much time of our time in the first place. As I have indicated, the substance of comrade Matgamna's introductory speech was useful - but not for the insights it offered into the strengths and weaknesses of the real politics of the CPGB. No, what we appeared to have in front of us was the spectacle of a sect leader energetically drawing fake lines of demarcation to consolidate his group in opposition to another. The charges he made in the course of his opening were monotonously familiar. However, the whole thing can be summed up by his absurd claim that what is at issue is “Trotskyism” versus “Stalinism”. As regular readers will know, this nonsense, in all its tortured manifestations, has been comprehensively answered in Jack Conrad’s string of polemics against comrade Matgamna’s 'Critical notes’ (see Weekly Worker November 28 2002-January 23 2003). Comrade Matgamna - at is his bombastic worst - did not venture to answer anything in this series. Unburdened by the need to actually engage with his opponent’s arguments, comrade Matgamna felt himself free to simply repeat the accusations in the hope that mud sticks. Thus, his performance on January 25 was simply a 'live’ version of his latest article against us - 'Under the sign of the oxymoron’ (Solidarity January 23) - a bizarre article that spends much of its time attacking us on the basis of the politics of ... the ultra-Stalinist New Communist Party! Our inability to make forward progress in political relations was on evidence in all the contributions from AWLers on the day, but perhaps the one that illustrated the problem most starkly came from Mark Osborn. Comrade Osborn - I have dubbed him “a one-trick pony” - recounted yet again his experience at the Communist University of 2001. Apparently, in the course of his time with us, he asked two comrades whether we had “a position on two states” in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mark - with blustering incredulity - told us that one CPGBer said “yes”; another “no”. In fact, all of this is simple - and has certainly been patiently explained to comrade Osborn in the past. John Bridge again outlined it for the still flummoxed AWLers present. The CPGB as a collective does not formally have 'positions’ on political issues until an authoritative meeting of the membership has adopted a resolution or other document which has been debated and - if necessary - amended. At the same time, the ongoing debates and disagreements in our ranks are constantly producing majorities and minorities. In that informal sense, the organisation has a range of positions over a wide variety of political questions. On the concrete issue comrade Osborn raised, at the time he attended our school in 2001, we were in the process of debating the question. I do not think it requires an intuitive genius to take a stab at what he is describing. A comrade who supported the minority position on Israel-Palestine would naturally have been at pains to emphasise the open-ended nature of the debate, that no formal position had been taken. A comrade from the majority would probably have had a rather more cut and dried take on it and identified the majority’s position with that of the Party. Our organisation actually formally adopted a position on Israel-Palestine in a set of theses adopted nearly one year later after our comrades so thoroughly confused comrade Osborn (see Weekly Worker May 16 2002). This ain’t rocket science, comrades. Of course, comrade Osborn was trying to shore up comrade Matgamna’s assertion that the CPGB is nothing more than “a variegated collection of individuals” - his response to the statement that we have recruited relatively experienced comrades “from all over the spectrum of the left” (Weekly Worker January 23). Our cohesion - it is implied - comes from nothing else but a “cult” loyalty to individuals and certain historical fetishes. This is not serious engagement. The joint school on January 25 amply illustrated that leading sections of the AWL have ruled out unity with the CPGB and are determined to back away from the Socialist Alliance. We sincerely hope other voices will make themselves heard. Mark Fischer * Leeds, lies and Owen MacThomas - part 1 * Afghanistan and Owen MacThomas - part 2 * National questions and the AWL patriarch - part 3 * Sectarian amateurism and the complacent world of Sean Matgamna - part 4 * Matgamna’s platonic republic - part 5 * Bourgeois revolution and Walter Mitty polemics - part 6 * Origins and revolutionary tradition - part 7