A perfect shit-storm
Mark Fischer uncovers the murky world of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty
At the meeting of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty national committee on August 30, long-time loyalist Duncan Morrison observed that a “shit-storm” had been raging since the group’s leading member, Sean Matgamna, went into print excusing a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran (all quotes from the AWL’s own minutes of the meeting unless otherwise stated).
In fact, the AWL itself has been desperate to obscure the central issues at stake and - to facilitate this - has armed its members with a series of outrageous (and laughably flimsy) lies about the CPGB and Hands Off the People of Iran (see Weekly Worker September 25). Given this, it is instructive that the minutes of the August 30 national committee meeting verify that the polemic this paper unleashed has been well directed and effective.
It also confirms the deep unease many AWLers feel about the original outrageous Matgamna article, despite repeated calls for ‘party patriotism’ in the face of his dark warnings that “our tradition” is “under attack”. (The task of all AWLers - whatever their views on the question - was to “go to war with the Weekly Worker”, as Matgamna himself put it to leading dissident David Broder … who promptly resigned.)
Opening the discussion on the controversy - organised around a resolution from the organisation’s higher body, the executive committee - Matgamna whined a little about being “bullied” by the Weekly Worker. But this should not mean that the group must accept the accusation “that there is no space between recognising ‘good reason’ for Israel to attack Iran and endorsing such action … I can’t imagine endorsing what Israeli generals actually do.”
“But the basic point,” he went on, “is that we cannot be backed into implicit endorsement of the Iranian government to have nuclear weapons. That’s my central concern ... I don’t want Israel to have nuclear weapons, but I don’t respond by saying that then Iran should have nuclear weapons to ‘balance’ that.”
Since the controversy broke with the publication of his “discussion article’ in Solidarity (July 24), Matgamna has repeatedly attempted to deflect attention from its real “basic point”. To remind readers, the core of his argument has nothing to do with the need to convince his audience that he did not support the regime in Tehran tooling up with nukes - who on the face of this planet would ever develop the idea that the leader of the AWL would think this? Instead, its “basic point” was that there is “good reason for Israel to make a precipitive strike at Iranian nuclear capacity”; that this is inevitable, given the “lunatics” of the “clerical fascist regime” and their genocidal intentions towards Israel. That accepted, he asked, “In the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel?”.
Matgamna has gone to great lengths to obscure the necessary conclusions that flow from this line of argument. For instance, later in his national committee opening he warned that “the question ‘in the name of what do we condemn?’ I regard as a sanity-saving question”. This is because condemnation is to “implicitly endorse the ‘mullah’s bomb’”. Nonsense, of course. So it was left to Mark Osborn - a man born politically exasperated - to underline in vivid red the wretched reactionary logic of his boss’s position.
“[Iranian] Civilian casualties?” he is reported as saying in one intervention. “Suppose they are very large. 10,000. But that is not comparable with Israel being obliterated. A lot of comrades seem to assume that the Iranian regime is pretty rational. They are not. They are not just the guardians of Iranian capital.”
In the two preceding paragraphs of the minutes, Osborn gives us two telling statements. Yes, he wheedles that the AWL should “oppose” and “can’t support” an Israeli strike. However, he reiterates that “Israel has a right to defend itself from a clerical fascist regime which says that it wants to obliterate it”; and that, when the bombs start falling, “the degree and mode of ‘condemnation’” (we are not informed by the minute-taker if Osborn made ‘quote mark’ motions with his fingers at this point) “after the event depends on the details of what happens”.
Previously, Osborn had been explicitly asked on the organisation’s internal list to specify what level of Iranian deaths he might find acceptable. He did not reply at that stage, but here’s what he appears to believe: implicitly, anything not numerically “comparable” to a lurid AWL-concocted fantasy of an Iran nuclear strike on Israel wiping out millions. Perhaps then the death of Iranian people merely in the tens of thousands would be acceptable and his ‘condemnation’ would be commensurately restrained. (Perhaps he might tut a little, shake his head at the telly and resolve not to vote for the Israeli entry in the next Eurovision.)
Of course, there is the inconvenient detail that Iran appears not to be developing nuclear weapons at the moment. And even if were to do so in the foreseeable future, there is the small question of the Iranian military’s capacity to deliver such a warhead. This paper has featured a Q&A on this matter with nuclear and process engineers, including a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector. These experts explicitly told us that “Currently Iran is in no position to deliver a missile or a bomb by a land-to-land missile warplane equipped with a warhead and in fact no-one claims that it is [apart from the AWL, perhaps - see below, MF]. For that reason, claims that somehow Israel or Europe are threatened by an Iranian nuclear bomb are fictitious. Once it achieved uranium enrichment, Iran could deliver without weaponisation a large-sized nuclear bomb (a barge of tens of square metres) on land or in the Gulf. But such a large nuclear device would presumably be detected by US satellites and destroyed before reaching its destination” (Weekly Worker September 4).
But little general Osborn is motivated by pro-Zionist apologetics, and will not let small details like this deflect him: “The CIA may say that the Iranians are nowhere near a nuclear bomb. But the Israeli judgement is about trying to stop the process before it is unstoppable.”
This is truly shocking stuff. When reading this, comrades must bear in mind the AWL leaflet distributed outside the opening of this year’s Communist University (August 9) - handed out by a surly Mr Osborn himself. This spoke of “the burning, immediate question of the acquirement of nuclear weapons by the Iranian regime” (my emphasis Weekly Worker September 4,).
By the time that leaflet morphed into the editorial of the following issue of Solidarity, this hysterical nonsense had been modified, but its spirit lives in the uber-warmongering of Osborn and the small group of uncritical loyalists around Matgamna. In effect, these people are giving political carte blanche to a murderous Israeli attack on Iran, before the “burning, immediate” danger of a nuclear-armed Tehran becomes “unstoppable”.
There are trends within the organisation ranged against Matgamna and his supporters, and these revealed themselves in the NC discussion - at least, in an outline form corresponding to their general lack of political coherence.
Opposition on the AWL NC ranged from the mildly squeamish (Sacha Ismail) through to a harder stance based on some notion of the political principles involved (Janine Booth).
Ismail was concerned primarily to plug what he saw as a “gap” in the argument: that is, “the question of whether we oppose an attack, which is distinct from both not endorsing and from condemning”. In a later contribution, he is more explicit when he suggests that “I don’t agree with automatically ‘condemning’. But we should oppose in advance.”
Patrick Murphy drew this point out a little further, suggesting that “the word ‘oppose’ is crucial. Sean’s original article says an Israeli attack would be a bad thing, but does not oppose it. It asks in the name of what should we condemn it, but dismisses all the reasons for which we might condemn it … what’s the complication about just saying that we oppose an Israeli attack, we condemn it, etc?”
Bruce Robinson admitted that the parallels with the AWL’s position on Kosova - which some Matgamna supporters had drawn - left him cold. “I had doubts at the time about what we said on Kosova and I think problems for that remain unresolved.” In addition, he put his finger on an important question when he pointedly asked - “Is Sean saying that there is no agency that can change the situation?” That is, why doesn’t his article present a general outline of the tasks for the working class in the Middle East?
Janine Booth made the same point. In addition to noting the widespread scepticism about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, plus the fact that Matgamna “does not refer to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians”, she makes the simple - but devastating - observation that the offending article “addresses the question through the prism of what the Israeli state has the right to do or not to do, not the interests of the working class.”
Matgamna’s subsequent argument is instructive and confirms that what underlines his steady drift to the right is a profound pessimism. Responding to Robinson’s direct question about “agency”, he interrupted to ask revealingly, “In what timescale?” As Robinson quite correctly responded, “That is not the point”.
In various forums over the past few years, Matgamna has repeatedly commented that “we do not live in an age of revolutions” - eg, at the ‘Alternatives to capitalism’ session at the AWL’s annual school, Ideas for Freedom, on July 13. This could be taken as a fairly uncontroversial - but exaggerated - observation about a particular period the world is in at the moment. However, the conclusion Matgamna draws is that adherence to principle is “fantasy”, as he put it in his reply to the NC debate. He increasingly operates within the Realpolitik parameters dictated by bourgeois politics - thus his concentration on the tasks of the Israeli state, not the working class of the region.
This feature of Matgamna’s drift was picked up by David Broder while he was still a member. In the comments box on the AWL site, he correctly wrote that “one among the ‘kitsch left reasons for criticising Israel’ Sean throws up in his list is of a rather different character to the others: ‘Because for choice we would live in a world where the workers of Israel, Iran, Iraq were united in opposition to all their rulers, and strong enough to get rid of them and bring to the region an era of socialist and democratic peace and understanding.’ Sean clearly thinks this is just utopian, and portrays this approach in a carping and dismissive fashion” (Posting July 28, www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/07/28/discussion-article-what-if-israel-bombs-iran).
Thus, Kate Ahrens was a little generous when she observed that the Matgamna article “didn’t sufficiently talk about agency to stop the ‘mullahs’ bomb” (or the real nuclear bombs in the hands of the Israeli state, we presume she would agree). In fact, the working class as genuine agency is not mentioned at all apart from the forlorn observation above, and that - ideally - Matgamna would want to see Ahmadinejad “sent to hell not by the Israeli and American armies and airforces, but by the Iranian working class and the oppressed nations in the Iranian state. We would like to see the Israeli ruling class go on the same trip as Ahmadinejad” (ibid).
Ahrens made a more effective point by reminding the meeting that “when the SWP refused to condemn the Twin Towers attack, we said they should condemn it. [The Matgamna article] implies that we should forgive, etc an Israeli attack … I can’t vote for the motion from the EC. There will be uproar on the left whether we like it or not.”
Even more ominously, she says later: “Sean’s whole article is about scenario-mongering. The article should at least have identified scenarios in which we could unequivocally condemn an Israeli attack … I am not part of the AWL tradition. I came from another tradition. I was persuaded by argument. But I don’t think anyone will be persuaded by Sean’s article.”
Those AWLers in varying degrees of opposition to Matgamna’s position are clearly deeply uneasy about where he is leading them. One form this takes is a perception that there is one set of AWL rules for Sean Matgamna, another for the rest of the members.
In the past, we have warned that Matgamna “must be thought of as an extremely loose cannon in the AWL itself”, given his propensity to explode into print with ramshackle, breezily ignorant and interminably long polemics of pitiful quality (Weekly Worker August 30 2007). Also, we pointed out that he seemed to have unrestricted access to the paper and website for his ramblings (and for a portfolio of poetry that would make a Vogon wince). In this instance, the group’s misleader has made a polemical assault on agreed AWL policy.
At their May conference, some 40% voted for a soft ‘troops out’ amendment on Iraq, invoking sneers from the likes of Mark Osborn about the AWL’s “Maoist youth”. Worse for Matgamna, the conference passed a resolution on Iran that stated: “a conflict between Iran and Israel would constitute war between two sub-imperialisms …” It goes on to commit the organisation to “oppose military action (whether invasion or air strikes, bombing raids, etc) or economic sanctions against Iran” (Weekly Worker August 28).
As Kate Ahrens put it, “If anyone else on the NC had written an article outside the parameters of our policy, we would have insisted that it be discussed on the NC before being published in the paper.” The same concerns about Matgamna’s cavalier approach prompted a motion for the NC from Bruce Robinson ‘On organisational aspects of the recent dispute’, appended to the August 30 minutes.
He reminds his comrades of the relevant section of the AWL constitution:
“Unless the organisation is to be allowed to dissolve under the stress of political differences, and thus be rendered incapable of acting as an entity, the properly established leading committees have to retain the right to determine at any given moment whether views other than those of the AWL, properly established, will be expressed in our press, and how.”
Similarly, he quotes the section of the constitution which stipulates that political differences “should first [be raised] on the highest body on which [members] sit - branch, national committee, executive committee.”
For the most part, Matgamna and his supporters have tried to deny that there are any substantive differences. “Kate says that Sean’s article was outside the parameters of agreed AWL policy,” says AWL veteran John Bloxham. “It wasn’t,” he baldly states. And, Cathy Nugent lamely suggests, it was nothing more than “an attempt to discuss our general policy of opposition in the light of concrete circumstances”.
The patriarch himself is at pains to blur the differences that divide his organisation, disingenuously suggesting that “I wouldn’t want to argue about precise wordings. I wouldn’t have objected to people proposing different words beforehand … But now we face the brouhaha … My article in substance said I was against an Israeli attack. That is enough. We should not bend to the brouhaha.”
At the same time, however, he reveals his reasons for wanting the original conference motion overturned: “Yes, the conference document is unclear. Israel and Iran are sub-imperialisms, but the conflict is not about that. Iran’s hostility to Israel [is] to do with political islam rather than economic competition.”
Any suggestion that there are no differences of substance in the ranks of the AWL over this question is nonsense - even if they have so far only made their appearance in outline, in undeveloped form. Oppositionists should be aware that this haziness serves the purpose of drawing the organisation further to the right, of establishing the new scab line premiered by Matgamna as AWL orthodoxy.
The AWL needs a bloody good bout of sharp factional struggle to clarify the real issues at stake, to set clear lines of political demarcation and draw out the true logic of political positions that at present are being hopelessly muddled - to the advantage of the group around Matgamna.
The fate of the EC motion at the August NC offers a perfect example.
An amendment from Sacha Ismail to remove the phrase, “we are against such an action”, from the text and replace it with the (mildly) tougher “we are against - that is, we oppose - an attack” was - incredibly - defeated by five votes to eight. For: Sacha Ismail, Lynne Moffat, Patrick Murphy, Bruce Robinson and Janine Booth. Against: Martin Thomas, Mark Osborn, Cathy Nugent, Tom Unterrainer, John Bloxham, Sean Matgamna, Duncan Morrison and Sofie Buckland. Kate Ahrens abstained.
The final point of the EC resolution stated that “Israel has a right to exist and, therefore, the right to defend itself.” An amendment proposed by Bruce Robinson was agreed (with only Kate Ahrens abstaining). It simply adds the sentence, “This does not imply support before or after the event for any particular action by the Israeli state” - this despite the fact that Robinson, Lynne Moffat and Janine Booth had raised problems with the ‘right to defend itself’ formulation in the debate. Booth initially proposed an amendment that the phrase be replaced with the “right to defend its existence” - but eventually withdrew it.
Robinson had suggested that the phrase is just confusing - “it is not clear what it means,” he said. This is simply not true. In the context of how the warmongers frame their arguments against Iran, let alone the discussions taking place at the very highest levels of the Israeli establishment, the meaning is very clear indeed. Raised in this way, at this time, its intention is to give the green light to a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran. Any other explanation is so far removed from real events in the Middle East as to be loopy.
So, the final resolution was passed with just two abstentions - Janine Booth and Lynne Moffat. The comrades expressing opposition of varying degrees were unable to formulate their politics in a way that would make the fundamental principles involved in the dispute clearly visible and, thus, the motion unsupportable. In the end, they were drawn to the right and endorsed a resolution that could not even bring itself to use the word “oppose” in relation to a ‘pre-emptive’ Israeli strike on Iran, presumably as this would have been too much of a concession to the ‘kitsch left’.
Fudge and concession are the established method the far right in the AWL uses to ensure their domination. Before this latest dispute totally soured inter-personal relations, CPGBers encountered AWLers who insisted that, of course, their organisation was against the occupation of Iraq, that the rest of the left simply did not understand the political subtleties that informed their reasoning for not raising the question of withdrawal in any form. So - on reflection, our AWLers conceded - it might be wiser to just adopt the ‘troops out’ slogan to get the rest of us off their backs.
A number of oppositionist comrades at the August 30 meeting expressed such naive sentiments. As Patrick Murphy put it, “We should clear the ‘oppose’ question out of the way by saying that we do oppose it.” Janine Booth, presumably looking round the room with a puzzled look on her face, wondered why, if “everyone says they oppose [an Israeli attack] … why not say it publicly?”
Why not, indeed?
This paper has repeatedly shown the reason why. The AWL’s social-imperialists around Matgamna - the hegemonic trend - are “increasingly indistinguishable from the Labour right, the US neo-cons and rightwing Zionism” - as our aggregate resolution puts it (see below).
Thus, Matgamna and co are against the occupation of Iraq in the same way as Brown or Blair ‘oppose’ the continued presence of US-UK forces: it is a necessary evil that needs to be ended as soon as a ‘normal’ civil society has been given the space and time to emerge. The only distinguishing feature of the AWL’s take on this theme is that it specifically emphasises “the Iraqi labour movement” within its scenario. Other than that, its points of reference are effectively indistinguishable from mainstream bourgeois thought.
Let us once again repeat the words of Matgamna: “We do not advocate an Israeli attack on Iran, nor will we endorse it or take political responsibility for it. But if the Israeli airforce attempts to stop Iran developing the capacity to wipe it out with a nuclear bomb, in the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel?”
We ask AWLers - how hard would it be to imagine these words in the mouth of an explicitly bourgeois politician like Gordon Brown? With the caveat that Brown would be very unlikely to publicly announce sentiments like this for fear of (perfectly justified) public outrage.
Lastly, AWLers must reject with contempt the leadership’s attempt to foist on them snarling hostility to the rest of the left. Transparently, this is simply a crude attempt to seal them off from rational political arguments of other organised trends in the workers’ movement - or rather, those to the left of the Matgamna group. For instance, the August 30 NC also passed a resolution originating with the EC, which - perversely - suggests that “we should treat David B and Chris F [ie, Broder and Ford, who resigned from the AWL and formed ‘The Commune’ - see thecommune.wordpress.com] as a very hostile group, and specifically one where hostility to the AWL is one of their main missions rather than incidental.”
Frankly, this is crap - and is easily contradicted by skimming through the new group’s website. Indeed, it is not explicitly hostile enough, instead presenting itself as yet another immaculately born sect. But by contrasting this hostility with the attitude adopted towards others who leave the sect, we get a clearer picture of the AWL’s real trajectory.
Thus, Martin Thomas wrote a report on the AWL’s internal list on August 31 of his discussions with Tom Rigby - once industrial organiser, but now an ex-member. Thomas tells his comrades that, “On the Israel-Iran issue, he was critical of Sean’s Solidarity 3/136 article, calling it ‘slippery’, but (despite a long conversation) I couldn’t identify any actual political difference from the article. The impression I got was that he was veering towards a position of positive support for Israel analogous to the one which made him positively support the US in Afghanistan, but when I put that to him straight out, he denied it. In a sense all this changes nothing … It is obviously in our interest to keep friendly relations with Tom, and get help from him when he is willing.”
So Thomas recommends tolerance and friendliness towards an ex-member who has a position of positive support for the US occupation of Afghanistan and possibly for pre-emptive Israeli military action on Iran. But for those on the left - such as Broder and Ford - “hostility to the AWL is one of their main missions rather than incidental” - a palpably untrue and pretty absurd statement.
The fact that the AWL leadership feels compelled to draw such a sharp line of demarcation against a group as sloppy, mild-mannered and inoffensive as ‘The Commune’ underlines how fragile Matgamna feels his grip on the AWL is becoming, how threatened he feels by those inside the AWL whom he despicably dubs the “kitsch left”.
His aim has been clear all along. Compact the AWL around his politics and create a wall of hatred between AWLers and the rest of the left - “our enemies”, as official AWL documents explicitly dub the rest of us. At the NC Janine Booth noticed that “Sean gives the impression that this episode has been some sort of character-building experience for our members”, when in fact it has “actually … been really quite unpleasant”.
That, of course, was the intention.
Iran and AWL
Motion unanimously agreed at CPGB aggregate (see Social-imperialist misleaders slated)
1. With the Sean Matgamna ‘discussion’ article excusing an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the AWL shows where the logic of social-imperialism leads.
2. The AWL is, though, deeply divided. We urge AWL activists to stay in and fight. We urge them to rebel against Matgamna and all social-imperialists in the leadership. We urge them to expel Matgamna from the AWL.
3. The Weekly Worker has taken the lead in highlighting the AWL’s political trajectory. It has also shown that the AWL is effectively excusing in advance an Israeli military strike against Iran, which in all probability would be nuclear. Conventional bunker busters are unlikely to be able to do the job. This coverage has been accurate and honest. Charges from the AWL leadership that we have been peddling lies are completely unfounded.
4. An Israeli nuclear strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would have a terrible human cost. It would also have a whole range of negative political consequences. The hold of the theocracy in Iran - already boosted by the threat of war - would certainly be strengthened and nationalist sentiment bolstered. Israel could go in for another bout of ethnic cleansing in an attempt to establish a greater Israel (annexing the West Bank).
5. There is also the possibility of a US blitz against Iran in order to save ‘little Israel’ from Iranian retaliation.
6. When it comes to international issues, the AWL’s politics are increasingly indistinguishable from the Labour right, the US neo-cons and rightwing Zionism.
7. Since 2001 the UK government has abandoned its former policy of taking diplomatic distance from the Israeli state - as can be seen from British policy in the 2006 war in Lebanon. In the new conditions, Israel is an immediate ally in a war in which the UK is a subordinate ally of the US, conducting actual military operations in the Middle East. Under these conditions, the line argued by AWL leaders on the state of Israel’s “right to self-defence”, including pre-emptive “self-defence”, amounts to British-defencism: the defence of the war policy of the British capitalist state in a current active war. It plays exactly the same role as social-imperialist defence of ‘bleeding Belgium’ and ‘plucky little Serbia’ played in 1914.
8. Such politics have no legitimate place in the workers’ movement. We do not advocate bans and proscriptions. We advocate a political struggle to defeat and drive out social-imperialism.
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