AWL and 'free discussion'

The AWL will not debate the subject matter of Matgamna's July 24 article, writes Peter Manson

As reported in recent issues, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has clearly and unequivocally refused to debate Sean Matgamna’s notorious “discussion piece” with the CPGB (‘What if Israel bombs Iran?’ Solidarity July 24). But now it has gone further - it has taken to deleting all fresh comments posted on its website that challenge the AWL’s stated reasons for refusing to debate!

Readers will know that Matgamna’s article excused and justified an Israel attack against Iran’s nuclear installations - even though such a strike would almost certainly have to employ nuclear-armed bunker busters to have any chance of success. In effect it was a nuclear attack the AWL guru was excusing.

Because his AWL apologists have consistently denied that Matgamna was doing any such thing, I will sum up once more his line of argument. The “clerical fascist rulers” of Iran are “homicidal religious lunatics”, who have declared their intention to “wipe out” Israel. They can be likened to a “god-crazed suicide bomber” and might even welcome the “nuclear armageddon” that a retaliatory strike by Israel would bring.

There is therefore “good reason” for Israel to make a “precipitate strike” to stop this “ultimate suicide bomb attack” and there would be a “genuine self-defence element” in “pre-emptive” Israeli military action. In these circumstances socialists must not argue that Israel should be “condemned for refusing to stand idly by”.

All this is perfectly clear, but Matgamna’s most craven followers - in particular his number two, Martin Thomas - have insisted that the above words carry an entirely different, indeed the opposite, meaning from what they convey to any normal reader. Thomas and co assure us that Matgamna is “opposed” to any Israeli attack on Iran (even though the AWL national committee, upon the leader’s urging, specifically rejected the use of this term). They claim he merely wanted to ensure that opposition to any Israeli attack must be based on solid, working class arguments.

The worrying thing is that some quite senior figures in the AWL seem to actually believe this claim - unlike Thomas, of course, for whom mendacity and the falsification of opponents’ arguments has become almost an art form (I am convinced he derives great pleasure from his latest ‘creations’). And it is Thomas who has concocted all manner of imaginative means of turning the truth on its head in relation to the AWL’s cowardly refusal to debate Matgamna’s “discussion piece” with the CPGB, alleging that it is the “Weekly Worker group” that is running scared.

In reality it seemed pretty obvious to us very soon after the publication of ‘What if Israel bombs Iran?’ that Matgamna would not justify his comments in any face-to-face public debate. Our invitation for him to address the week-long Communist University in August at a time of his convenience was ignored and then the AWL claimed it could not make a single Saturday or Sunday in the whole of September for such a debate.

When the AWL actually agreed to a debate between Matgamna and Moshé Machover of Hands Off the People of Iran and the Campaign for a Marxist Party - hosted jointly by the AWL and CMP, and entitled ‘Israel, Iran and the left’ - this was viewed by some CPGB comrades (including myself, I have to admit) as a welcome, if surprising, development. Other more sceptical CPGBers predicted that Matgamna would not keep to the central argument and would use instead all kinds of diversionary tactics.

When the debate actually took place on October 12, these comrades were proved correct - with a vengeance. Despite the fact that comrade Machover had written two polemics, published in the Weekly Worker, against Matgamna’s Solidarity article and despite the fact that the AWL’s own publicity for the meeting led with the question, “What would socialists say if Israel bombed Iran?”, Matgamna completely shied away from this central point of dispute. Indeed, the word ‘Iran’ did not pass his lips in his opening 35-minute speech!

In a subsequent intervention, in response to CPGB points raised from the floor, he merely commented that there had been a lot of lies told about his article and of course he was against an Israeli attack on Iran (that article too, amongst all the excuses and justifications for such an attack, had stated that socialists should be “against” it).

But we are nothing if not persistent. Despite Matgamna’s abject (and quite frankly absurd) failure to debate the agreed subject, we once more called on the AWL to discuss what it had previously called “the burning question” (Solidarity August 21). Admittedly this phrase did not refer to the very real and immediate possibility of an Israeli or US assault against Iran, but “whether the Iranian regime develops nuclear weapons” some time in the future! Nevertheless, we were prepared to debate this, since it was posed as a reason for excusing an Israeli “pre-emptive” strike.

Once again Martin Thomas seemed to accept that the debate would take place - until it came to the small print. We were most certainly not prepared for a rerun of October 12, when Matgamna ducked out of the key issue completely. We therefore insisted that the proposed meeting should be held under the title of his notorious article, ‘What if Israel bombs Iran?’ It was this debate, and no other, that we had agreed to.

Of course, the title of a debate is not a matter of principle in itself. What is important is that both parties accept the parameters of such a debate and agree to stick to the subject. But on October 12 Matgamna’s opening speech had been devoted to the rise of anti-semitism, the response of Zionism, the “Jewish nation” and Israel’s right to exist - it was an incredible piece of social-imperialist effrontery and an insult to all those who had turned up expecting to hear him speak on Israel-Iran.

However, Thomas, in recent correspondence with the CPGB’s Mark Fischer, and on the AWL website, claims: “If WW really wanted a debate, they would accept the original, appropriately ‘neutral’, title and say whatever they want to say under that title” (www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/11/13/new-evasions-weekly-worker). Typical Thomas sophistry. This skirts around the hardly unimportant question of what we would be debating under this “neutral” title. (In actual fact what is it about ‘What if Israel bombs Iran?’ that is not “neutral”? After all, on the one side, the AWL would take up an ambiguous ‘refusal to condemn’ stance in its usual manner, while, on the other, the CPGB would vehemently oppose it. Is this not worth debating? Matgamna claimed it was a central issue when he opted for those precise words as the headline for his article.)

The point is not really the title’s neutrality, of course, but its pertinence: its usefulness in ensuring that there is a debate - not the spectacle of two groups talking at cross-purposes about entirely different issues. Nor do we have any objection in principle to debating Zionism, Israel and Palestine or whatever with the AWL. But not when it is desperately trying to evade any discussion of Matgamna’s views on an Israeli attack on Iran.

Thomas’s “neutral” title would be ‘Israel, Iran and socialist politics’ - almost identical to that agreed for October 12, when Matgamna chickened out of defending the content of his article. But Thomas says that the CPGB “alternative title isn’t good, because the debate has widened in the last four months”. Yes, the discussion has “widened”. That is inevitable whenever people genuinely engage with ideas - although, in the case of the AWL, it is more a matter of creating diversions.

However, surely there can be no dispute that the central question remains just as relevant as it was in July. Has the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran been removed altogether? Perhaps the AWL now accepts that Iran does not intend to “wipe out” Israel? Even if either (or both) of the above were true, is the theoretical attitude of socialists to an attack by one reactionary power against another not worth discussing?

It has now been established beyond any shadow of doubt that the AWL will not debate the subject matter of Matgamna’s July 24 article. Thomas asks a relevant (if rhetorical) question: surely the “AWL might shrug and accept a bad title for the sake of having the debate?” His response is hardly convincing: “Probably not, in fact, because the WW group lacks the importance either of size or of significant ideas that would make us want to do such a thing.”

Well, either we are “important” enough to be worth debating with or we are not. This comment is just another way of saying the AWL does not want to talk about Matgamna’s “discussion piece” - not surprising in view of the fact that most AWLers wish he had never written it.

Ironically the AWL website displays at the foot of each article: “We welcome debate and encourage free discussion.” There is an invitation to post comments. However, when CPGB comrades attempted to respond to Thomas’s latest article, which claimed we had pulled out of an agreed debate, within a short time their comments were all deleted.

Eventually, the following was posted beneath Thomas’s article: “Note: in line with our general policy on comments, we are not accepting comments on this post which are merely repetitions of the WW position. Anyone who wishes to check out that position can do so by reading the full correspondence between AWL and WW on the aborted November 30 debate … or by consulting the WW website ...”

So much for “free discussion”.