Grubby Paul Hampton

Mark Fischer replies to the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's Paul Hampton on the question of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq

Paul Hampton of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty takes it upon himself to tick us off for the recent article on his group's shameful refusal to call for the removal of troops from Iraq and the wimpy opposition this has engendered in AWL ranks (Weekly Worker June 14). In a June 15 posting on his blog, he thunders that my contribution is "more proof" - as if it were needed, of course - "that the Weekly Worker is scarcely more than a grubby little gossip sheet" (all Paul Hampton quotes from www.workersliberty.org/node/8693).

Paul's comment is a shade over 250 words, so it is an aside rather than an analysis. However, he manages to pack a lot of revelatory info into this little dig. Unfortunately for him, what is laid bare says very little about us; but quite a lot about the workings of the comrade's own grubby little sectarian mind.

The first paragraph - extracted above - has two gems. First, let's revisit that tired and impressively dim-witted charge that we produce a "gossip sheet".

For the life of me, I cannot see what the man is talking about here. I surmise that this must be an oblique reference to just two aspects of the piece. One, that I quote from private email exchanges with the two leading figures in the AWL opposition, Dan Randall and David Broder. Two, that when I cite an estimate of the split on this question at the recent AWL conference of near 50-50, I make it clear that I had been "told" this. It came through unofficial channels rather than via the organisation's press or website. Which is precisely why I qualified it in this way.

As an aside, it is worthwhile wondering why there has been no open report of the precise voting figures (or even percentages) at this conference? Paul penned the bland official report in Solidarity of June 7 and this tells us that after a debate (the content of which we are not informed of), "David's amendment was lost and the main resolution carried". It is legitimate to speculate that Paul is so reticent about giving us any real detail precisely because the vote was so close, because his organisation is split down the middle on this question of principle.

So, yes, I was verbally informed of the split conference vote. In mitigation, however, let me name my source - none other than that irascible old rough 'n' tumble self-proclaimed "Zionist", Sean Matgamna - the AWL's leading political figure, in fact. Call me 'Mr Jump-to-a-conclusion' if you will, but I presumed (a) he was there and (b) he can count.

Comrade Hampton seems to also find it irksome that, "unable to actually argue about the situation in Iraq or assess the consequences of the 'troops out' slogan, instead the WW prefers to selectively cut and paste some correspondence with AWL comrades". It is not worthwhile commenting on the moronic notion that this paper has not concretely analysed the situation in Iraq, the balance of the contending forces or the logic of the demand for the unconditional withdrawal of imperialist troops. I presume Paul knows what the word 'archive' means: he should click said button on our website and prepare to be amazed.

But what about my personal correspondence with individual AWLers? In fact, I directly approached comrades Randall and Broder because - as I wrote to them - there had been so little about the debate in their own press or on their website. I offered them a platform in our paper, or a chance to talk off the record in order to inform an article I was planning to write on the question. Both reacted in a hostile manner, but in the course of the exchange as it developed the two comrades did put a little more political meat on the bare bones of their oppositonal stance - at least, as it has appeared publicly anyway.

When I came to write the article, I contacted both comrades to ask if they had any objections to me extracting quotes from our online argument: "As the raw material I am working from "¦ is extremely sparse, I am intending to use the ideas and some quotes from the recent exchange we had by email. I'm sure you both have records of this, so if there is anything you would like to clarify or retract, please get in touch" (email, June 12). Only comrade Broder replied, suggesting that I perhaps "remove some of the more angry-young-man kind of stuff", which I did (email, June 12).

However, I strove to present the written political views of these two comrades fairly. Neither has suggested since the article appeared that I did not do so. So again, I do not know what Paul Hampton means by the word "gossip", but I am happy to go with the definition in the battered old dictionary here in our office - "casual and idle talk", often "involving malicious chatter or rumours about other people".

With this in mind, can I reissue the same challenge to comrade Hampton originally thrown down to his AWL comrade, Jill Mountford, by CPGBer Marcus Ström in the old Socialist Alliance days (Weekly Worker July 18 2002). If Paul can give me just one example of "gossip" in the offending article, I will donate £100 to AWL funds. And if you can't, then it's £100 from you to the CPGB's Summer Offensive - yes? Jill never did get to collect her £100 and - seriously, comrade - what on earth are you talking about?

Of course, this brand of feeble abuse against the revolutionary journalism of our paper underlines just how much of the rotten culture the AWL still shares with much of left, as does Paul's very next sentence. In this, a truly bizarre scenario is painted where our "flirtation with some AWL comrades over Iraq [went] unrequited, so out come the slurs about 'imperialist economism', with neither the majority nor the minority spared".

It is certainly true that we are harshly critical of the 'troops out some time' minority, but there is something else in these words. Strongly implied is the idea that comrades Randall and Broder were approached in order to simply foment a split. Underlining what a good AWLer he is, David Broder actually expressed himself in thoroughly SWP terms when he rejected my offer of a platform for his views as a "disgraceful and underhand effort to get me to leak a 'scoop'on an internal debate in a democratically centralist organisation to fill the pages of your uber-sectarian rag". He also suggested that we are "well up for a split in the AWL" (email, May 23).

In fact, this lays bare the template political style of the likes of Broder and Hampton, not ours. Here is the relevant section of my reply to comrade Broder:

""¦ you really shouldn't project the shoddy standards of your own sect onto others, David. We think you, Dan and others who think like you should rebel, not resign. We would take no joy in seeing the already minuscule and fragmented left further disorganised and weakened. Read anything we have ever written on splits in serious working class groups and try to find us engaging in the sort of gleeful hand-rubbing others are guilty of when groups shatter.

"And, ironically enough, those 'others' include your own comrades, of course. After some low-level political defections from us to you a few years ago, the AWL went on a sustained campaign - including open letters from ex-members, phone calls, email approaches - designed to encourage CPGB comrades they perceived as having differences with the majority to simply walk and join them. Distasteful, frankly.

"I reiterate - don't judge us by the standards of your own group. Where in anything I have written to you two do you find any implication that you should flounce out of the AWL and simply join our ranks? Nowhere. What I do advocate is that you take this issue seriously and launch some sort of worthwhile rebellion against the majority's position - not to foster a split, but precisely in order to save them as communists and comrades" (email, May 21).

Lastly, we have a little bit of a squabble over who can justifiably claim Lenin as authority for their position.

Comrade Hampton suggests that we mangle Lenin to score cheap anti-AWL points. Specifically, he writes that, utilising the Lenin extract, "The CPGB compares the AWL to Pyatakov in 1916, because he denied the right of self-determination". We "can't even read Lenin right", he sighs, as "no-one in the AWL denies the importance of fighting for self-determination in Iraq. We simply believe that, given the balance of forces between the current Iraqi state and the islamist militias, the immediate withdrawal of US-UK troops would lead to the break-up of Iraq in sectarian statelets: ie, the opposite of self-determination."

Paul Hampton can't read Lenin right and he can't seem to get his head round simple sentences in the Weekly Worker. Yes, the spat with Pyatakov concerned self-determination; but we quoted Lenin's more general point on the relationship of the imperialist economists to democracy in general. Here's what we actually wrote: "Lenin is chiding Kievsky - that is, the cadre name of the 'left' Bolshevik Georgy Leonidovich Pyatakov (1890-1937) - for failing to 'appreciate the significance of democracy'. Socialism, writes Lenin, is 'impossible' without democracy, 'because "¦ the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy" (my emphasis VI Lenin CW Vol 23, Moscow 1977, p74).

The burning democratic question in today's Iraq - the central contradiction that all classes that aspire to lead that society must address - is its occupation by imperialism. How can anyone claim otherwise? Comrade Hampton's statement that "no-one in the AWL denies the importance of fighting for self-determination in Iraq" is thus flatly contradicted by the actual majority resolution passed with his support by the AWL conference. This unequivocally states that the question, 'When should the US-UK troops get out?', is "in reality a question between the ruling class and reactionary factions "¦ In fact, it is beyond our collective power when they withdraw "¦ In any case, it is the wrong focus. If we care about the peoples of Iraq, we should build solidarity with those forces who can ensure that when the troops withdraw Iraq can be a democratic and secular country" (see Weekly Worker June 14).

In the meantime, the 'important' issue of self-determination is to be left to classes and social forces other than the proletariat. However much they get wrong elsewhere, the minority is spot on when it characterises this position as one which would reduce the working class of Iraq to "a passive actor capable of nothing more than battening down the hatches while the conflict over the occupation takes place above its head between various imperialist and subimperialist forces" (Broder and Randall Solidarity May 18).

In fact, comrade Hampton is not above a bit of Lenin-mangling himself. He claims that in the same article we cite above, Lenin denounced slogans such as 'troops out' that are "detached from any anchor in reality" and he quotes the man to the effect that "There is not, nor can there be, such a thing as a 'negative' [communist] slogan that serves only to 'sharpen proletarian consciousness against imperialism' without at the same time offering a positive answer to the question of how [communists] will solve the problem when [they assume] power. A 'negative' slogan unconnected with a definite positive solution will not 'sharpen', but dull consciousness, for such a slogan is a hollow phrase, mere shouting, meaningless declamation."

What possible relevance does this have to the discussion "¦ apart from, perhaps, to help make a case against the AWL majority's scabby line? For in this work, Lenin quotes Pyatakov's view that the right of nations to self-determination should appear purely as a "negative slogan: ie, to the demand socialists present to their governments - 'get out of the colonies!' Unachievable within the framework of capitalism, this demand serves to intensify the struggle against imperialism" (my emphasis, MF). And again, here is Pyatakov: "We fully accept, in their negative formulation, a number of demands that tend to sharpen proletarian consciousness against imperialism, but there is absolutely no possibility of working out corresponding positive formulations on the basis of the existing system. Against war, yes, but not for a democratic peace ..."

Lenin deals with this impatient leftism succinctly: Pyatakov "does not understand the difference between 'negative' slogans that stigmatise political evils and economic evils. The difference lies in the fact that certain economic evils are part of capitalism as such, whatever the political superstructure, and that it is impossible to eliminate them economically without eliminating capitalism itself "¦ On the other hand, political evils represent a departure from democracy which, economically, is fully possible 'on the basis of the existing system': ie, capitalism "¦"

In other words, the demand for 'troops out of Iraq' is not a 'negative' slogan either in the Pyatakov sense (ie, impossible to realise under the present world capitalist order) or in the Hampton sense (that it is advanced recklessly, without a thought for the dire consequences if it were to be won). It is an indispensable demand in Iraq and, crucially, in the states whose armies occupy that country, for "the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy" (Lenin, my emphasis).

Hampton and his majority comrades recommend that the working class in Iraq, the UK and US abstain from this struggle - a crass betrayal and a negation of the fight for independent working class politics. Luckily for them, they have no opposition worthy of the name at present.