Courting controversy

Our annual school - Communist University - always causes a problem for some, writes Mark Fischer

Details of this year’s Communist University are now online, including the timetable. Apart from a possible tweak here and there, this will be the final version (seewww.cpgb.org.uk/cu/index.html).

We are covering an extremely wide range of topics - from the anthropological significance of Stonehenge, through the efficacy of the theories of Louis Althusser, to a discussion on the role of China in contemporary capitalism. A number of themes are developed throughout the week. In particular on the party question (with sessions led by Marxist activists involved in the new anti-capitalist party project in France and the launch of a new booklet by CPGBer Mike Macnair - Marxist political strategy and the problem of unity) and four meetings examining the legacy of 1968.

In keeping with our tradition of open debate, we are making sure that current controversies within our own ranks are given an airing. On Friday August 15, the day kicks off at 10am with a three-way debate on fighting fascism between Dave Esterson of Permanent Revolution, Ben Lewis of the CPGB majority on this question and David Isaacson of our minority (See Weekly Worker March 20 for an outline of the CPGB’s differences).

We look to court controversy because we believe that it is precisely through the clash of opposing positions which have some degree of coherence to them - including those that divide our own comrades - that education and clarity is facilitated. And we make sure that opposing arguments are given the time and space to be as adequately expressed and explored as fully possible. Sessions at CU are two and a half hours long - more or less twice the length of the recent PR school (see Weekly Worker July 3), the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism and Alliance for Workers Liberty’s Ideas for Freedom.

So a lively event, then. Although, not quite as lively as it might have been …

Comrades will note that there is only one meeting on Iran at this year’s school - the opening session featuring Yassamine Mather of Hands Off the People of Iran, Chris Strafford of the CPGB and a yet to be named PR speaker. In fact, we approached the AWL to provide a speaker on this subject - helpfully pointing out in the course of the subsequent email exchange that despite the looming threat of a disastrous attack on Iran, despite the ongoing horror of the Iraqi occupation and despite the sharp differences in the ranks of AWL itself over these questions, there was “nothing whatsoever on either Iraq or Iran at [its] forthcoming education event” (MF email, July 1).

Readers may recall that there was a farcical incident at the opening of last year’s CU when we were picketed by a small group of AWLers who told bemused participants as they arrived that the CPGB had “chickened out” of a debate with the AWL on Iraq (see Weekly Worker August 30 2007). In fact, the background to the incident was this.

In early July 2007, we invited David Broder - preciselybecause he is a member of the AWL’s ‘troops out now’ minority - to speak at CU. He accepted. However, shortly after this we received an email from David telling us that he had been told by leading AWL functionary Mark Osborn that, “if you want someone from the AWL to come to CU, you should go through the AWL office” (Weekly Worker August 9 2007).

After numerous emails and telephone calls to that AWL office, on the eve of CU we are offered ... AWL leader Sean Matgamna! A self-proclaimed Zionist and supporterof the occupation! So not really ideal for the meeting we had in mind, then.

We wrote declining the offer of the comrade for these reasons, but adding: “… we would like to make it clear that we would relish the chance to debate Sean or any other pro-occupation AWL comrade at any other time. Please feel free to suggest some dates”. Yet the next time we find ourselves face to face with AWLers is when they picket our school, denouncing our ‘cowardice’ for dodging the debate!

The low-level farce around our request for an AWL speaker this year has been useful, in that it has conclusively proved our point that this feeble provocation in 2007 was an attempt to divert attention away from the AWL’s fear of the debate, not ours.

The comrades were originally contacted on May 30 to provide a CU speaker. After some prompting, AWLer Tom Unterrainer wrote to tell us that they still had no confirmed speaker to offer us, but that they were “keen” to debate “Imperialism and Afghanistan: then and now” (email, June 13). That is, a discussion we have had a number of times with this organisation in the past - including at CU!

I indicated in my reply to comrade Unterrainer that I doubted “if there will be much appetite in our ranks for a rerun” of this debate. In fact, on July 1 we wrote suggesting a “compromise”: we floated the idea that “space is made for a debate with us” at the AWL’s school (starting on July 11) - on either Iraq or Iran (“you choose which one”, I offered - rather generously, I thought). With that covered, “we would be more than happy to debate you on Afghanistan once again” at CU (email, June 27).

On July 5 - at the SWP’s Marxism event - we were verbally informed by comrade Unterrainer that this was out of the question, as the timetable for their event had been “settled” for some time. With the ticklish question of imperialism’s contemporary military interventions in the Middle East being a small ‘oversight’, of course. (Just as Iraq was shamefully absent from last year’s Ideas for Freedom).

So, we’ve come full circle haven’t we? Last year, we invited minority AWL comrade David Broder. The AWL apparatus objected - ostensibly because we had not gone through the central office.

This year, as I pointed out in my final email in this slightly tedious exchange, “we made direct contact with your centre, asked for ‘an AWL speaker’ - up to you to choose which one, which political trend within your organisation would be represented - to speak to us … You refused the debate.

“I presume you now thus have no objection to us directly approaching comrade Broder to speak at our school on the question of Iran?” (email, July 15).

I actually “presume” nothing of the sort. We will keep readers up to speed with any subsequent developments, but expect AWL ‘objections’. The comrades are acutely sensitive on this question, fearing that a thorough and rigorous open debate in their ranks would split the group. Thus, not only has this organisation twice ducked a debate at CU. In the recent past it has:

Do we see a pattern emerging here? AWL comrades appear to be adopting tactics of denial to deal with the painful questions that are increasingly hemming them in. Apart from those cited above, I have recently had Tom Unterrainer himself deny to me any knowledge of the fact that the March 6 demonstration in solidarity with Iranian trade unionists Mansoor Ossanloo and Mahmoud Salehi (which failed to even mention the threat of imperialist war against that country) was in fact also backed by the British and Australian governments. At the time, we even quoted the site of the UK organiser, the International Transport Workers Federation, which informed readers that the two governments had “released statements backing the day”, with British foreign office minister Kim Howells making a personal declaration of support (Weekly Worker March 13).

Despite this support from warmongering imperialists, the AWL’s website still tells us that this action “is an important example to trade unionists across Britain of the kind of work needed to put real international pressure on the Iranian government” (Harry Glass posting, March 7). Did you really not notice this, comrade Unterrainer? Has no-one in your organisation spotted it? Really?

In much the same cowardly spirit, both Tom Unterrainer and Sacha Ismail - two leading young apparatus comrades in daily contact with AWL leaders, one assumes - denied to me any knowledge of Sean Matgamna’s proud boast to be a “Zionist”. This is despite Sacha being in the CU session where Sean defended this self-definition!

AWL comrades who doubt our word should simply dip into their own internet archives, where - after a search that cost me only 20 seconds of my life despite the arcane layout of the site - I found an article where the comrade states that “a Zionist is anyone who believes in a Jewish state as a solution to the age-long ‘gentile question’ which, taking a variety of ideological, political, religious and ‘national liberationist’ forms, has plagued the ‘people without a state’ for 2,000 years. In practice now it means a belief in the right of Israel to exist and defend its existence.”

Matgamna’s piece is a rejoinder to the fact - reported by the Weekly Worker - that AWL number two Martin Thomas had actually described himself as only “a little bit Zionist”. Comrade Matgamna is admirably more frank than many of his members when he denounces this faint-hearted “mealy-mouthedness” on the subject. (Solidarity September 4 2003). Yet the contagion of “mealy-mouthedness” now seems to be the general method of the AWL and certainly seems to be the guiding ethos of the organisation’s annual schools.

The AWL sells itself as a trend whose “political culture” is one “in which every participant has the taken-for-granted right to disagree with the majority, to pose awkward questions, to express dissenting opinions and to proselytise for them” (July 14 website posting: ‘Left unity? Yes! But why is the “left” divided now?’).

In truth, such a robust, combative culture bears little relation to the reality of this disorientated group, a pro-imperialist group within the workers’ movement increasingly defined by its queasy shyness and bouts of amnesia when it comes to “awkward questions” over Iran, Iraq and the war plans of imperialism.

In contrast, AWLers - like all other comrades - are more than welcome to come along to this year’s Communist University, where they will find there really will be ample space and space to “proselytise” for views dramatically at variancy with those of the majority. So, comrades, be braver than last year - actually come into the meeting hall this time, don’t skulk in the car park.


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