Workers' Liberty: Descent into cultism
Ian Donovan assesses the current trajectory of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has unintentionally laid some of its cards on the table, in a reply - signed by Cathy Nugent, but bearing the political fingerprints of Sean Matgamna - to my letter protesting about the previous appearance of crude, apolitical abuse, directed against myself, in the pages of Solidarity, the AWL’s fortnightly newspaper (May 15). In that issue I was called a “lunatic” and a “nut”.
The reply - published beneath my protest - is self-evidently not meant to convince the socialist public at large that my views are wrong and the AWL’s are correct. Rather its whole purpose is to lay down the line to those under AWL discipline to believe whatever the leadership says, no matter how ridiculous and at variance with social and political reality. In this respect, this rather peculiar tirade is evidence that at least part of the AWL’s cadre has degenerated to the point of cultism, in the manner of such organisations as the Healyites and the Spartacists before them.
Take the following contention, in reply to one of my earlier political criticisms of the AWL: “When people write things as stupid as ‘It is quite obvious that the AWL doesn’t really like Arabs very much’ - really, how can you respond? One can say, ‘That’s an outrageous slander’, as indeed it is, and make a detailed reply for the record, or you can take the attitude, as we did, that no one in their right minds can take this seriously” (Solidarity June 12).
Quite a laughable response, really, to a serious political point - moreover a viewpoint about the AWL that is rather widely shared. That this view is very common among socialists who are not supporters of the AWL is tacitly admitted by Matgamna/Nugent later on in the same tirade: “Donovan says that if the rest of the left think we are anti-Arab chauvinists then it must be true. Well reasoned!”
Well, no: the fact that a viewpoint is widely shared - on the left or for that matter elsewhere - does not necessarily make it true, actually. It does, however, make that particular idea a material force: something that has to be reckoned with seriously, something that if it is not true is the product of a widely shared false consciousness. It appears that, far from being something that “no one in their right minds can take seriously”, it is something that many people, of necessarily many different states of mind, do indeed take seriously, and agree with.
If this widely shared view is the product of false consciousness, then surely the task of a socialist or communist organisation that is confident of the correctness of its political positions is, in the words of Lenin, to “patiently explain” its viewpoint, over and over again, a million times if necessary, to defeat this false consciousness and replace it with a correct, scientific viewpoint. If the AWL were confident that this widely shared viewpoint is wrong, it would see these criticisms as an opportunity to explain its views in depth to the wider public, to win a broader hearing for its case, to win over not only myself, but also the many others on the left who share the same alleged misconceptions of the politics of the AWL.
But no, instead we see a hysterical reaction, a reaction that basically says, ‘Anyone who criticises us in this manner must be mad’ (while admitting that there are many who do). The AWL is saying, in effect: ‘We are sane; everyone else is mad’ - a remarkable assertion that really is redolent of the practice of inward-looking sects, worried about the ‘impure’ thoughts that may be polluting their own followers, not of serious socialist organisations. Indeed, you could call it solipsism, or evidence of a psychosis, according to the old cliché that, whereas neurotics merely build castles in the air, psychotics live in castles in the air. Whatever, this self-obsessed nonsense is a morbid symptom.
So Nugent/Matgamna concludes: “The truth is that Donovan is not politically or intellectually serious - neither are those who give house-room to his ramblings.” The AWL’s rage against the Weekly Worker for daring to criticise its anti-Arab chauvinism is a product of its inability to refute the allegation itself. What else other than anti-Arab chauvinism can one say of an organisation that militantly opposes the right of Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel - territory from which they were brutally expelled more than half a century ago - as part of a democratic settlement in the Middle East? Even the more leftwing, Israeli-derived socialist groupings with a Zionist origin, such as Just Peace (UK), are prepared to address the question of the right to return, unlike the AWL, for which it is anathema.
At the same time as it rubbishes the Palestinian right to return, the AWL supports the explicitly discriminatory, indeed arguably racist, so-called ‘law of return’ of the current Israeli state, which gives automatic Israeli citizenship to Jews, even if they have no connection with the country and have never set foot in it in their lives.
What else can one say about a ‘socialist’ organisation that jumps up shouting, ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’, when that country is threatened - not with invasion and conquest, but merely with a few decrepit and antiquated Scud rockets, as in 1991? But which refuses to defend the right of the people of an Arab country such as Iraq to resist outright conquest by forces including that of its ‘own’ imperialist government? The double standards here, regarding the national rights of Arabs vis-à-vis non-Arabs, are so inescapable that it is no wonder that the AWL can only splutter with rage when they are pointed out. This is self-evidently vicarious Zionist, anti-Arab chauvinism.
Matgamna-Nugent lampoons the supposedly “fuckwit” view of the left that equates Zionism with anti-Arab chauvinism: “Now, the vast majority of Jewish people in the world are at least a little bit Zionist. Does this make all those people anti-Arab chauvinists? No, that would be a stupid generalisation, and a condemnation of a whole people.” In terms of idiocy, not to mention actual stereotyping of Jewish people, this really does take the biscuit. Whoever said that ‘Zionist’ could simply be equated with ‘Jew’? Only the AWL, it seems. In fact, for many Jews, Israel is seen these days not as a beacon of light, but rather as a potential death trap and certainly a source of disgrace for a people who were once in the vanguard of many struggles against oppression around the world.
Many of the most ardent supporters of Israel and Zionism historically have been various great powers and exploiter regimes of decidedly non-Jewish origin - people who certainly care little or nothing for the well-being of the Jewish people. A contemporary example of this is the mass phenomenon of christian-Zionism in the United States, which supports Israel as a manifestation of biblical prophesy in the book of Revelation, a prophesy which begins with the destruction of the hold of ‘satanic’ islam over the Middle East through the agency of Israel, but which eventually involves the conversion of a large section of Jews to christianity and the annihilation of the rest!
A more secular manifestation of this trend was the advocacy of mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories by Dick Armey, the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives last year: evidently a militant Zionist, but also a christian Reaganite fanatic. The Israeli right, in turn, trumpets its approval of this ‘support’ for its bloody deeds by enemies of the Jewish people.
Far from being representatives of some soft-focus Leon Uris stereotype of the desperate Jew embracing Zionism as his/her salvation from a world bent on persecution, in reality these manifestations of Zionism in the US-Israeli context have more in common with the Ku Klux Klan, the historic persecutors of Jews in America, from the dark days of 1913 and the lynching of Leo Frank onwards. Yet the vicarious-Zionist AWL has issued not one word of criticism or analysis of this ultra-reactionary phenomenon, which is one of the key, concrete manifestations of Zionism today.
Matgamna-Nugent’s piece is stuffed full of pathetic red herrings consciously designed to obscure, not clarify, the political issues at stake in the disputes between the AWL and CPGB over the Middle East (and indeed many other issues). The claim that the main point of my critique of the AWL over George Galloway was that I accused the AWL of wanting to see him hanged is a case in point. Any literate person can see that this was merely a rhetorical drawing out of the political logic of the AWL’s approval of Galloway’s persecution by the bourgeois media, their equation of Galloway with Nazi sympathisers in World War II, etc. Matgamna-Nugent’s synthetic rage over this statement is a feeble diversion that only a cultist could take seriously for a second.
The AWL claims it is being “heresy-hunted” over Galloway, because it is being criticised by the left for crossing class lines in its evident approval of the bourgeois press’s witch-hunting attacks. It harks back to the time when Gerry Healy and Vanessa Redgrave attempted to bankrupt Matgamna’s Socialist Organiser through the courts for the crime of merely criticising Healy’s own political activities. The AWL says that, since Galloway is being accused of being in the pay of Iraq, and also Healy was without question funding his mercenary activities against the left through ‘arrangements’ with a variety of bourgeois regimes including Iraq, then the two issues are the same - and the AWL therefore deserves support for its campaign against Galloway, as it once did against Healy.
In evaluating whether or not this accusation is true, it is useful to ask a simple question here. Who stands to be victimised as a result of the campaign being waged by the rightwing media and the Blairites against George Galloway? The answer is obvious: George Galloway (though things are looking more hopeful in terms of defeating the witch-hunt as a result of recent developments). The AWL does not stand to be victimised over this: if anything, it appears to be hoping against hope for Galloway to be destroyed, politically and personally, by this witch-hunt.
In reality, it is the AWL that is behaving like Gerry Healy - though not in the sense of the Healy group in the particular case when Matgamna’s organisation was sued by Redgrave. Rather, it is playing an identical role vis-à-vis Galloway as the Healy group played in witch-hunting Arthur Scargill, in tandem with the whole of the reactionary and gutter press, at the 1983 TUC for the crime of denouncing Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity as “anti-socialist”.
If Healy’s WRP was an unsavoury, scabby little cult in its ‘exposés’ of Scargill then, the AWL is playing a similar role today. Indeed, it is worth recollecting that in the reprise of the anti-Scargill witch-hunt in 1992, when Scargill was set up by MI5 agent Roger Windsor for similar allegations to those being levelled at Galloway - ie, taking in this case Libyan gold for personal gain - the Matgamna group was indistinguishable in its conduct from the Healy group in the earlier witch-hunt. Basically, they declared Scargill was guilty then, just as they declare Galloway guilty today. Thankfully they do not have a daily paper to promote their treachery in the way Healy did.
Of course, as left reformists themselves, the likes of Scargill and Galloway are also capable of crossing class lines. Scargill boasted immediately after the last general election of having written to David Blunkett demanding that the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party be banned from having election broadcasts because of their nature as ‘federal’ blocs of disparate leftist currents. Galloway has on at least one occasion threatened to sue Matgamna’s organisation in the courts when it slandered him as an anti-semite. We oppose all such actions that cross the class line, and defend the entire left and the workers’ movement against the courts, or the witch-hunting reactionary press and the sinister forces that stand behind them. At this point in time, however, the matter in hand is to defend Galloway against the bourgeois witch-hunt.
The remainder of Matgamna/Nugent’s piece is pretty feeble. They congratulate themselves on their ‘empathy’ with people who “react strongly to child abuse” (although they are “hardly in favour of lynch-mob justice” of course). The AWL also “empathise with” people who would like to censor and ban leftwing criticism of existing bourgeois norms on sexuality which interfere in consensual relationships when they conflict with arbitrary age-of-consent laws. Like Steven Davies, the AWL’s hanger-on in Birmingham, who wrote to the Weekly Worker demanding that the mere expression of views on the age of consent that contradict his own bigotry should be grounds for expulsion from a socialist organisation.
The AWL’s representative then wrote in to agree with him that the CPGB’s views were pro-“child abuse”, demurring only from the outright ban this bigot was demanding (on grounds of free speech even for those with “odious” opinions). To characterise Davies’s views for what they were - reactionary bigotry impinging on BNP territory - was beyond the capability of the AWL. On the contrary, their spokesperson made it clear she agreed with most of what he said. Even bourgeois journalists in some sections of the more liberal capitalist press have shown more courage in standing up to this kind of reactionary outcry than the ‘revolutionary socialists’ at the top of the AWL.
Whether over Galloway, the question of the Iraq war, Israel-Palestine, the Socialist Alliance (where it has squandered an enormous opportunity to be joint initiators of a genuinely broad paper of a pro-party minority), the AWL is retreating headlong back into the most bizarre and unsavoury forms of sectarianism.
Increasingly this is of a rightwing coloration: with its posture on Galloway, for example, if it were to decamp back into the Labour Party now, its members would rightly be regarded by much of the Labour left as pro-Blair witch-hunters. One can only hope that this bizarre evolution will call forth its own negation from within the AWL itself - someone must have once taken seriously Matgamna’s fine words about left unity and the arguing out of differences in a democratic, joint leftwing organisation that was the stock in trade of the AWL in 1999.
This retreat into cultism, with its ‘distinctive’ positions that are more often than not simply reactionary, is no road to building any kind of united left challenge to Blairism, or indeed anything worthwhile at all.