On the defensive over Iraq

Ken Crisp looks at the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's latest discussion bulletin, which reveals an organisation in crisis

The leadership of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has been greatly troubled by internal resistance to its refusal to demand the immediate withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraq, and has been at pains to silence the significant opposition current in the organisation putting forward this slogan.

Opposition supporters have been no-platformed by their own leadership: the AWL’s Ideas for Freedom summer school last year featured no debate on the most significant issue in world politics and the issue which divides the organisation. The leadership have twice gagged David Broder, the most prominent AWL critic of the organisation’s social-imperialist line, who was refused permission to speak on the Middle East both at Communist University 2007 and at the Hands Off the People of Iran fringe meeting at this month’s National Union of Students conference.

Similarly, when oppositionist David Kirk had the temerity to write a letter to the March 20 issue of the AWL’s paper Solidarity critical of the previous issue’s editorial (which had set out to defend Israel’s right to “self-defence”, before moving on to describe Israel as “one of the most democratic societies in existence”, although admittedly its attacks on Gaza were “disproportionate”), Solidarity editor Cathy Nugent provocatively printed a response of her own right next to it - three times longer than the letter!

However, despite these faults in the AWL’s democratic culture, it is hardly a bureaucratic monolith along the lines of the Socialist Workers Party - indeed it posts internal bulletins on its website featuring meaningful polemic between AWLers. The latest of these, AWL Discussion Bulletin No278, includes among other things two motions on Iran and Iraq (one submitted by the leadership, the other by the opposition) and “discussion documents” by AWL number two Martin Thomas, as well as his critics, Daniel Randall and David Broder. These texts are worthy of some examination if we are to understand the misdirection of their organisation.

Martin Thomas’s polemic is written in a ‘question and answer’ format: he writes a series of responses to straw-man “objections” rather than responding to the writings of the AWL opposition. This tactic in itself stinks of an undemocratic culture, where the leaders ignore the complaints of oppositionists and cling on to their own dogma regardless.

Comrade Thomas does, however, refer repeatedly to the analysis of Barry Finger (an ally of the AWL in the United States), the “assessment by the influential US Democrat political figure Peter Galbraith” of what would happen if the troops left, and “SWP types who positively support the clerical fascist militias”. He claims that, while these three at least have honest positions, the AWL opposition “want to tack a popular slogan, borrowed from other analyses, onto our analysis, and make the sloganistic tail wag the Marxist dog”. The meaning of this is clear: the leadership have the authentic Marxist/AWL position, whereas the politics of the opposition are taken from other tendencies: from ‘outsiders’.

However, in his effort to simultaneously ignore the opposition and at the same time cast the aspersion that it does not stand in his organisation’s tradition, comrade Thomas becomes rather unstuck. He can hardly claim the tradition of Trotsky arguing for ‘the Soviet United States of Europe’ as a slogan, as against ‘Down with the Versailles treaty’: the AWL does not put forward any programme for Iraq akin to Trotsky’s call for continent-wide socialist revolution. The AWL instead believes that the Iraqi working class should engage in narrow, day-to-day trade unionism, while saying nothing about the democratic question of imperialist occupation and self-determination. Similarly, the AWL’s claim that the American “globocop” is spreading democracy around the world has far less to do with the Trotskyist tradition (the first four congresses of the Comintern; the anti-imperialist united front) than it does with the Kautskyan hyper-imperialist doctrine.

Even worse than this is the largest section of his document, which tries to argue that refusing to call for ‘troops out now’ in Iraq in 2008 is the logical continuation of Sean Matgamna’s battle against the leadership within the forrunner of the SWP, the International Socialists, 40 years ago, when comrade Matgamna argued that the IS should demand ‘troops out’ of Ireland.

His case is twofold: (a) that ‘troops out’ was only ever intended as part of the programme for Ireland, and was “fetishised” as the be-all and end-all of Matgamna’s politics; and (b) that “the argument was never essentially about the specific slogan ‘troops out’ ... the issue for revolutionaries, we asserted, was - confidence or no confidence in the British government. Despite a lot of noise IS in fact, through acquiescence and through the attacks it made in [Socialist Worker] on those who wanted to call for troops out, expressed actual confidence in the government.”

But what better analogy could there be with the AWL debate on Iraq? While the leadership says nothing about the national question, oppositionists demand a programme for self-determination for Iraq: Daniel Randall writes that he is not merely for ‘troops out’, but also: “We do not believe that analytical article after analytical article concluding that any demand or slogan about the occupation (beyond being ‘against it’) is ruled out [as] insufficient. We believe that we have a responsibility to have something clear and specific to say about the occupation. We must have a programme for democracy in Iraq.”

While both comrade Randall and comrade Broder have referred to the “meshing” of occupying forces and islamist militias, and deny that the occupiers are defending the Iraqi labour movement, the AWL leadership will tell anyone who will listen about the fact that only the continuation of the occupation can keep islamists at bay and protect democratic rights, and why those who demand the withdrawal of troops are de facto allies of “clerical fascism”. What better way to show “acquiescence”, express “actual confidence” in your own government and give a ‘left’ cover for American and British imperialism? Comrade Thomas claims that the opposition gives slogans a meaning they do not explicitly have: but that is because he cannot understand the need for thoroughgoing programme on which to base slogans.

Indeed, the pieces of both comrades Randall and Broder claim to represent the real ‘third camp’ tradition of the AWL (the term was originally coined by Leon Trotsky, but he later savaged it when it was used by his American followers, Max Shachtman and James Burnham, whose opposition to Soviet defencism he characterised as “petty bourgeois”) and write that only demanding the withdrawal of troops is consistent with the ‘third camp’ of independent working class politics. To this end, on the AWL website comrade Broder has posted a quote from the Sean Matgamna who criticised the IS leadership in 1969, aptly illustrating the change in method:

“But it is Marks [of the IS majority] and the EC who should not be taken seriously. Their horror of the possibility of bloodshed, and their lack of faith in the possibility of the catholic workers defending themselves (with aid from the workers in the south and in Britain) led them to. They turned their backs to the basic revolutionary case, refused to argue with it, and instead sought weird ‘Machiavellian’ explanations for why anyone could be so crazy to call for the troops to go. And they set up special standards that should allegedly follow the ‘troops out’ demand, that would not be expected from any other demands.

“One makes all kinds of educational, agitation and propaganda demands, despite knowing that they will not be implemented immediately or precisely. Agitation, the spotlight of the steady beam of propaganda, is seen as preparing the way. The implementation of the demand presupposes a whole series of changes, which the raising of the demand will help to bring about. As strength is built up, it becomes possible to act, to plan …

“In this case the whole class relationship was dressed up as a simple time sequence. ‘Time,’ said Marks, ‘is of the essence. To say that the immediate enemy in Ulster is the British troops is incorrect.’ Now the troops provide a ‘breathing space’, they stand ‘in the short run ... between the barricades and the Orange lynch-mobs’ (and a very short run it was indeed, because those very barricades had ceased to exist by the time Marks’ article was printed!). He talks about the side they ‘must ultimately come down on’ - ignoring completely the side they are already down on. The whole thing implies that they are either on the side of the Paisleyites or the catholics, at any rate in the short run. This is nonsense: they are ‘on the side of’ British imperialism, are its direct agents; they do not become friends of the catholic workers, defenders of their barricades, assistants in arming the catholics, merely because they are clobbering the Paisleyites” (www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/03/03/swp-and-british-troops-ireland-1969).

Comrade Randall and comrade Broder are trying to resurrect such ideas, which are clearly at odds with the imperialist economism the AWL leadership spouts today. However, unfortunately the oppositionist motion on Iraq and Iran does not call for ‘troops out of Iraq now’, only making the case for ‘troops out’. In his piece comrade Randall risibly claims that this is justified on the basis that “I do not believe the troops have, nor have they ever had, any legitimacy or progressive role to play in Iraq” and therefore the word ‘now’ is unnecessary, since the “time frame” is not the issue! In reality refusing to call for ‘troops out now’ implies that you want them to leave, but not ‘now’ (ie, the same position as Gordon Brown).

This is a huge concession to the AWL leadership’s acquiescence to the occupation ‘for now’, although comrade Thomas refuses to take it this way and instead claims that ‘troops out’ is “only a more mealy-mouthed version of ‘troops out now’”. However, comrade Broder’s discussion document does specifically call for ‘troops out now’, and he has previously claimed that he plans to submit an amendment calling for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops - the slogan which communists see as the only principled anti-imperialist position. We can only hope that he sticks to this principled approach.

This dispute within the AWL opposition is an unwelcome one, although those who call for ‘troops out now’ must reject centrist deviation like that of comrade Randall. It is clearly a reflection of the more general methodological confusion of the AWL: for example, while it refuses to demand immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the last two issues of Solidarity have had the front pages “Free Tibet!” and “Stop boosting Beijing” and carried the statement: “Self-determination means the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Tibet, and independence if a majority want it.”

Iraqis apparently do not have the same rights because islamists would take power if the western troops left: but the AWL does not similarly ask themselves who would take power in Tibet if Chinese troops withdrew. To claim that the right to self-determination is conditional on who would take power is the worst apologia for the controlling imperialist power and ignores the fact that national oppression overlays class struggle rather than facilitating it.

The AWL can easily be characterised as pro-imperialist: certainly its position on Iraq takes sides with the occupation. However, we have to see the AWL not as a fixed entity, but as an organisation going through a period of significant flux, trying to find a foothold after abandoning old prejudices such as the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ analysis of the USSR and the Leninist-Trotskyist understanding of imperialism. After ditching the Labour Party in the early 1990s it zigged towards the Socialist Alliance, zagged away from Respect, zigged into the Labour Party and the John McDonnell leadership campaign before zagging back into Respect last December. This kind of turbulence is equally well illustrated by the AWL’s completely different attitudes towards Iraq and Tibet.

For these reasons, we call on oppositionists in the AWL not to think of their organisation’s conference in May as the be-all and end-all of their struggle, but as the launch-pad for a wider campaign for political control. According to leading AWLers, there is little chance that the conference will vote through any oppositionist motion on Iraq - but the leadership’s victory does not have to be decisive.

Oppositionists must work to draw up an alternative programme for the organisation. So what exactly is the AWL’s project? Why has it made the wrong turns it has? Furthermore, in this situation of crisis, misdirection and misleadership, oppositionists can expect that the leadership will make further use of bureaucratic edicts to silence them in order to try and keep the organisation together, and for this reason it is imperative that they are ready to fight fire with fire, demanding factional rights such as regular space in the AWL newspaper and an end to ‘no-platforms’.