Workers' Liberty: Sectarians preaching to the converted

Manny Neira attended the Workers' Liberty summer school, Ideas for Freedom. He gives his impressions

We probably all have particular friends we have known so long that we have an idea of what they will think on most issues. It is part of friendship, of course: learning all those lovable foibles. And they are lovable, but ... Well, you would never dream of mentioning it, but they can drag just a little sometimes.

You see, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty held their Ideas for Freedom summer school this weekend, and in private a few of their comrades did wonder a little if the spark of previous years had gone out of this event. Even the closing singing of the ‘Internationale’ seemed rather downbeat. I overheard the comment, “That was a bit lacklustre.”

“Well, it still had a certain dignity,” I offered politely.

“It’s not supposed to be dignified”, came the reply. “It’s supposed to be rousing!”

And, of course, it is. The whole event should have been. Was it really only four months ago that millions were on the streets of London, protesting against the prospect of a vicious, imperialist war? That police were forced to move to clear school students who refused to give way in their protests outside parliament? Yes, to make a fetish of mere numbers of protesters, without clear political direction, is a political dead end that we have charged the Socialist Workers Party with heading towards before: but, even while marching, we knew that one day we would be telling the young, ‘I was there’.

And if we on the left failed to convert that raw anger at our lack of democracy in the United Kingdom into political organisation, how much was there surely, now, to say! The unions struggle with the contradiction of funding the very government party which is attacking them. The brave project of the Socialist Alliance is being dragged into popular front electoral opportunism by the SWP. The British National Party is growing and the left remains introspective and divided. Surely Ideas for Freedom, and the implementation of those ideas, have never been more important. How could this have missed?

And yet, somehow, it was. With up to three seminars running at any given time, I could only listen to part of the debate, but the fact remains that, had I prepared this report before the event, it would have required only minor edits to reflect the discussion which unfolded.

A little bit Zionist?

One defining attitude of the AWL has long been its attitude to Israel and the politics of the Middle East. The phrase “a little bit Zionist”, attributed to comrade Martin Thomas, has now become positively notorious on the British left, and the misunderstanding and undeserved opprobrium this badly expressed position has brought on the AWL is now sustained with the grim satisfaction of martyrdom.

It was no surprise, therefore, that one of the two opening seminars was titled ‘The rise of European anti-semitism - its rightwing and “leftwing” variants’. The quotes around the word ‘leftwing’ were in the printed programme: clearly, once again, the AWL was to be distinguished from the ‘fake left’.

The speaker was Guardian journalist Linda Grant. She explained that three sources of modern anti-semitism could be discerned, and proceeded to describe them.

The first, and most familiar, was the far right. Without causing any major surprises, she touched on the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s, and the continuity of the tradition of anti-semitism in Europe to the present day.

She spent a little time discussing the modern BNP, whose overt racism is now directed chiefly at muslims. This was, though, largely a matter of electoral opportunism: Jew-baiting is a vote-loser. She reminded listeners that Nick Griffin, leading light of the ‘new fascism’, was the author of the atrocious book Who are the mind-benders?, in which the “Jews in the news” are accused of “providing us with an endless diet of pro-multiracial, pro-homosexual, anti-British trash”.

The second source of anti-semitism was the ‘Arab world’. Chiefly prompted by anger over the formation and actions of the state of Israel, some Arabs had adopted a form of anti-semitism “imported” from christianity, and supplemented with pseudo-academic historical revisionism, denying the reality of the holocaust. Some Arabs have even, bizarrely, revived the myth of the Jew as ‘vampire’, literally seeking the blood of gentiles to consume or for ritual.

But her main theme was the third source of anti-semitism: the left. She began by referring to Khrushchev’s revelations in 1956 of the anti-semitism of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the purging of Jewish leaders. This prompted the shouted question, “So Stalin was leftwing?”, which Grant rather stumbled over but did not address.

From the concrete example of Stalin, Grant then broadened her talk into a series of generalisations. The anti-semitism of the left was “deeply problematic”. The left had focused on “Jewish capitalism” and “Jewish control of the media” in a way which was indistinguishable from that of the far right. The left had also nurtured “good and bad Jew” theory, characterising some Jews as ‘good’, but Zionist Jews as ‘bad’. Grant argued that, as most Jews believed Israel had a right to exist, the left considered them ‘Zionist’ and therefore ‘bad’.

Rather suddenly, she returned to a discussion of the far right. She pointed out that many fascist groups used the language of ‘anti-Zionism’ as an excuse to express a hatred of Jews, and that they described the murder and oppression of Palestinians for the same purpose. Their lack of interest in any other form of imperialism or oppression revealed the insincerity of such arguments. By implication, it seemed, the left should not be using arguments which the right were using merely as a cover for racism.

She argued that many Jews now worried that, under the cover of opposing Zionism, the left was treading an ‘old anti-semitic road’. Anti-semitism had become ‘institutionalised’ on the left by clichéd notions of the Jews and Israel.

If this argument sounds a little confused, it is because, frankly, it was. It set the tone for most of the interventions which followed, including that of comrade Sean Matgamna, which is worth recording.

Comrade Matgamna began by asking “What is anti-semitism? Is it Hitlerism?” His answer was “no”. “But if you believe that an existing nation doesn’t have a right to defend itself, to accept refugees or even to exist, then you are hostile to its people.”

He continued “You can be anti-Zionist, for instance, against the occupation of the West Bank, and not necessarily anti-semitic, but, if you’re hostile to the Jewish nation, you’re hostile to the people. ‘Zionist’ has become a swear word on the left, not used against the non-Jews who support Israel, but against Jews. This takes the form of a savage historical demonisation.”

This argument, like Grant’s previously, seemed to rest on a confusion about the meaning of ‘Zionism’. Essentially the argument ran that, to most, Zionism was simply the assertion that ‘the state of Israel has a right to exist’. To deny this was therefore to show hostility to the Jews of Israel and thus, probably, to be an anti-semite.

Marxism is founded in an understanding of history, and we cannot use language without an understanding of the history it describes. The term ‘Zionism’ was coined at the end of the 19th century to describe a movement which believed that Jews had a right to sovereignty over the lands along the eastern cost of the Mediterranean - then Palestine - through ancient associations and even divine providence. At the time, the Jewish population of Palestine was small, and Zionists promoted a programme of immigration and land acquisition by Jews from Europe.

Under the protection of first British and then US imperialism, the programme prospered, despite the alarm and opposition of the Palestinians. In 1947, the UN proposed a state for the Jews in a region which covered most of Palestine, and now contained roughly equal numbers of Jews and Arabs. In 1948, when the British withdrew their forces, the Jews declared the state of Israel.

In short, Zionism sought and finally achieved the formation of a state through a process of colonisation, ignoring the national aspirations of the Palestinians and finally displacing hundreds of thousands of them, all under the protection of British and US imperialism.

Zionism is therefore not an ideology that any socialist could have supported or can support. I have little doubt, though, that it is not the intention of the AWL to support this nationalist doctrine. In opposing what they see as the danger of anti-semitism, it seems they have overcompensated, and now offer a definition of ‘Zionism’ divorced from its historical context. It is profoundly unhelpful to the debate, and aggravates the tendency of many to regard the AWL as ‘first campist’, while simultaneously allowing them to condemn perfectly sincere anti-Zionist comrades as anti-semitic.

The question of the rights of the modern Jews in the region does not rely on the concept of Zionism. They have now lived there for generations, and have the same rights as any other people to democratic self-determination and the maintenance of a democratic and secular state, if that is their wish. As was vividly expressed during the meeting, they are the ‘children of a rape’, and bear no guilt for the original acts which displaced the Palestinians. The recognition of their rights by socialists now, therefore, is in no sense ‘Zionist’. It is also balanced by an equal recognition of the rights of the Palestinians, in the call for what is now usually termed the ‘two-state solution’, which the CPGB and the AWL both support.

However, even those socialists who call for a single, democratic, secular state to provide a home for both Jews and Arabs are not calling for the ‘destruction of Israel’, any more than they are calling for the ‘destruction of Palestine’. To label them anti-semitic merely on these grounds is extremely odd, particularly considering that the AWL itself is quite open about the fact that it previously supported this ‘single-state solution’.

As ever, a confusion in language is indicative of a confusion in thinking. Anti-semitism is a form of racism which argues that the Jews are inherently inferior, evil, undeserving of rights enjoyed by others or somehow genetically culpable for perceived crimes. On the other hand, Zionism is a form of nationalism - a religious and political ideology which attributed particular rights over territories to Jews on the grounds of their ethnicity and religion, overriding the rights of the Arab majority living there. Neither is consistent with socialism.

The belief that all Jews are Zionists is both defamatory and untrue: indeed, it is itself anti-semitic. The AWL does not assert this, but it does confuse anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, and unfortunately this actually aggravates this confused belief. Not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews. The democratic rights of both Jews and Palestinians are founded on the same, socialist, principles of democracy, in which Zionism has no place.

The lesser evil

Slightly gloomy that I might not merely be a member of the fake left but now also an anti-semite in the view of the AWL, I consulted the programme once again. Hoping to redeem myself, I chose to listen to Norman Geras speaking on the subject of ‘After the holocaust - mutual indifference and moral solidarity’.

This seminar was based on his book The contract of mutual indifference: political philosophy after the holocaust. Geras explained that his study of the human indifference which made, say, torture possible during the holocaust led him to apply the same theories to the wider field of modern social relationships, and to the reasons for simple economic inequality.

He developed the theory of the ‘contract of mutual indifference’, which essentially was a generally unstated but nevertheless operative social sanction, allowing each individual to ignore the needs of others, at the cost of abandoning the hope of reciprocal support. Geras acknowledged that this contract did not operate consistently - altruism and human solidarity were also possible - but maintained that it was the norm.

Essentially, it allows enormous disparities of wealth to be borne by society. The footballer is paid in a week what the average worker may earn in a year. Film stars earn yet more. These economic differences, if allowed to exist by the wealthier parties, represented a kind of ‘mild torture’: a passively inflicted injury on the poorer. The images of millions in poverty so severe it threatens death are broadcast to us and, beyond token gestures of ‘charitable support’, we remain unmoved.

I reflected that this ‘contract’ which Geras had identified and condemned sounded remarkably similar to Ayn Rand’s speech in defence of capitalism in The fountainhead: “I came here to say that I do not recognise anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to an achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how larger their number or how great their need. I wish to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.”

What Geras condemns and Rand glorifies is, of course, the ethic of individualism. While Geras vaguely concedes that it is not universal, he misses the key point. It is for a particular class that this contract is not universal: specifically, the working class. In educating and bringing together large numbers of people to feed its productive processes, capitalism created the working class, a class for whom a consciousness of their common interests is all but inescapable, as they work side by side, exploited by the same bosses: and a class which must overthrow capitalism itself.

Given this lack of class analysis, though, Geras’s remedy was unsurprising. Not revolution, but a new ethic: ‘strong’ economic equality, democracy and an acceptance of human rights, all to enable an “alternative moral logic based on rights to and duty to provide mutual assistance or solidarity”.

The conclusion of this petty bourgeois analysis, though logical, was still a startling thing to hear at a revolutionary summer school. Put simply, Geras argued that to prolong the Ba’athist regime by opposing the US-UK war on Iraq was to prolong the period the Iraqi people had to tolerate its oppression. Keeping Iraqis in danger of torture and other inhuman treatments was where he, personally, drew the line. In short, he supported the war on Iraq, and condemned the anti-war movement as immoral.

Even more surprising was the lack of opposition Geras faced for this analysis. Comrade Clive Bradley justified the AWL’s involvement in the anti-war movement on the grounds that it might build a movement which could do the Iraqi people more good than merely rescuing them from Saddam’s dictatorship. The extraordinary thing here, though, was that this answer implicitly accepted the argument that the anti-war movement was not in the immediate interests of the Iraqi people - that is to say, that the US-UK invasion of Iraq was to be preferred to stopping the war. Comrade Bradley commented: “As it turned out, the lesser evil won.”

George Orwell

  George Orwell being a favourite writer of mine, I was pleased to attend Chris Hickey’s seminar on ‘Why George Orwell is important’. This was a solidly researched talk, which focused on what are perhaps Orwell’s three most famous books: Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and 1984. To summarise the enormous detail comrade Hickey walked us through would be impossible in the limited space I have available to me here, and I can do little better than to echo the advice which he gave: if you have not read these books, do.

One thing I could not help noticing, though, is that even in this session familiar AWL themes were not far from the surface. In 1984, hero Winston Smith observes that “freedom is the freedom to say 2+2 = 4. If that is granted, all else follows.” In commenting on this, comrade Jim Denham noted that much of the left was inclined to forget this, over Galloway for instance ...


The final session I attended on the first day was a debate between Jack Conrad of the CPGB and Sean Matgamna on the subject of ‘Stalinism and Afghanistan’. The historical event underlying the debate was the intervention of the USSR in Afghanistan, but it soon became clear that the real subject was the alleged tendency of the CPGB to change its policy without ‘properly accounting for it’.

Comrade Conrad began by commenting on a paper comrade Matgamna had prepared on the subject to be discussed. He characterised the AWL as “debating with ghosts”: not tackling the position of their opponent as it is now, but as it was in the 1980s. He explained how his view of the USSR had changed over the intervening period. Initially, he had seen the USSR as a workers’ state, though one in which the gains of the revolution were threatened by the bureaucratic regime. His view was that those gains might yet be protected by the spread of the revolution.

Eventually, though, he abandoned this position, as it became clear that the first five-year plan had essentially constituted a social counterrevolution. The remnants of workers’ power had been wiped out, and Stalin had created a new social formation based on the exploitation of the workers and peasants. This, naturally, had changed his perspective on Afghanistan. He went on to explain in detail how his view of the events in Afghanistan had been reinterpreted in view of this new understanding.

Comrade Matgamna was not satisfied with this explanation: “The problem with arguing with Jack is that he isn’t serious about the truth. If he were, he would admit it when he changed his mind.” This was to set the tone for what was, to be honest, a somewhat pointless, if lively, show, in which comrade Conrad attempted to field repeated accusations of bad faith with repeated explanations of the same basic change in perspective. Having joined the CPGB a few months and not 20 years ago, it was difficult for me to intervene in his support: a pity which comrade Conrad commented on somewhat wryly himself, as he faced a room packed with members of the AWL in which I was the only fellow member.

Doubtless my conclusion will be considered partisan by the AWL comrades present at this event, but if they had hoped for a crushing political victory aided by their own choice of subject and a 30-to-one numerical advantage, they failed to secure it. My chief sadness, though, is that this sort of contrived sectarian blood sport is considered worthwhile.

The future

The second day of the school bought a far more important debate: on the ‘Future of the Socialist Alliance’. Comrade Pete Radcliff of the AWL spoke from the platform.

He began by analysing the Socialist Alliance’s electoral performance. This did not take long. Both the 2001 and 2003 votes gathered were derisory. The alliance had clearly failed to do the necessary work to engage either with the trade unions or working class communities. Indeed, if any organisation was filling the gap left by the lack of working class representation, it was now the BNP.

He then looked at the direction the SWP might be planning to impose on the SA. Cooperation with mosques, already a feature of some SWP work, seemed likely to increase, talks with the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain had already been announced, and finally the involvement of George Galloway remained a persistent and much feared rumour. In looking at the role of the SA in the anti-war movement, the SWP had again clarified the issue by simply not giving it one. The entire campaign had been coordinated by the SWP itself.

In short, comrade Radcliff characterised the SA as now being entirely and openly in the power of the SWP, and dying for want of working class politics. Many independent members had already voted with their feet.

He finally mentioned the argument for a coherent pro-party minority to organise itself within the Socialist Alliance, raised by both the CPGB and the Revolutionary Democratic Group. He said that the more serious task was to concentrate on working with the trade unions and in working class communities.

Steve Freeman of the RDG and I both spoke in favour of organising that substantial minority of the SA which had supported motions for an SA paper and a campaign for a workers’ party at the last conference. I pointed out that this was not an alternative to working to build a base for such a campaign in the class, but rather a vehicle through which it could be done. Daring to venture onto the subject of Galloway, I asked the assembled AWL comrades to consider two questions: firstly, was the position of the AWL really so different from the line of ‘critical defence’ adopted by the CPGB, and second, whether it was or not, was this really a sufficient argument to prevent the united action so urgently needed?

I was politely received, and then, still fairly politely, criticised first by comrade Matgamna and then by a series of other speakers for suggesting an unprincipled alliance: the CPGB, apparently, still “doesn’t get it about Galloway”. In perhaps the most surreal argument of the entire weekend, one AWL speaker even suggested that anyone prepared to offer critical defence to Galloway might as well offer it to the BNP. After all, they had opposed the war too, hadn’t they?

The fact that they opposed it on the grounds that it wasn’t worth throwing away the lives of white soldiers over a bunch of Arabs went unspoken.


In the real world, the historical struggle between oppressor and oppressed continues unabated.

Those politicised by the historic demonstrations in February have either fallen into inactivity or found other avenues of political action than socialist organisation. Some working class communities, abandoned by Labour, and contemptuous of the SA’s electoral opportunism, are expressing themselves through the BNP. The unions continue to struggle with the contradiction of funding the very government which attacks them. The US continues to roll out its terrifying ‘new American century’ project.

Meanwhile, in London, this weekend, a group of revolutionary socialists argued about George Galloway, the events of Afghanistan in the last century, George Galloway, how anti-Zionism is secretly anti-semitism, and (above all) George Galloway.

This was, perhaps, not our finest hour.