Fighting over the 'corpse'

The latest row in the Alliance for Workers' Liberty revolves around whether the Labour Party is dead. However, writes Ben Lewis, both sides are equally bankrupt when it comes to the type of party our class needs

As usual, Sean Matgamna is largely responsible for the latest controversy to hit the AWL. Using his position as undisputed patriarch, he has ridden roughshod over the agreed AWL position on the Labour Party. Just as he did with his notorious “discussion article” excusing an Israeli attack on Iran,1 he wrote a “debate” contribution on the possibility of the Communication Workers Union disaffiliating from Labour.2 He followed this up with another “discussion article” entitled ‘AWL, the crisis and Labour’3 - both are prominently featured on the AWL website.

Along with almost all sections of the far left, the AWL has been pushing for a new “workers’ party” - a Labour Party mark two, in other words - for some time now. It was Matgamna himself who called upon “brother Woodley” to take the lead in setting up such a party, and AWL members have effectively agitated for the Labour Representation Committee to split from Labour by demanding it backs independent union candidates who stand against both “bosses’ parties”.4 In case there was any doubt over the AWL position, last April an editorial in Solidarity, the AWL fortnightly, screamed: “The Labour Party is a stinking corpse!”5

So what does Matgamna now have to say about the relationship of unions like the CWU to this corpse? “To those who support disaffiliation … we should say that the only sensible policy is to wait and see”. In other words, we are witnessing a 180-degree turn, completely out of the blue.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with changing positions and correcting mistakes - far from it. In fact, this writer welcomes Matgamna’s seeming shift away from the absurd “stinking corpse” position. The Weekly Worker has always argued that the Labour Party is not simply a “bosses’ party” like the Tories or Liberal Democrats. It remains a bourgeois workers’ party. Nor should it be written off as a site for struggle - a revival of the Labour left under a Tory government is far from impossible. So in this sense Matgamna’s latest position represents a marked improvement - union disaffiliation in the absence of a viable political alternative serves only to depoliticise and demobilise.

However, we must be clear that it is exactly the opposite of what he was saying a year ago, despite his attempts to pass it off as a continuation of AWL policy - Matgamna now lectures his younger and often uneducated comrades that they have misunderstood the AWL’s “basic ‘line’”. He writes: “They may think that our assessment has been identical to that of the Socialist Party - that the Labour Party is dead”. How could they jump to such silly conclusions? After all, a corpse does not necessarily imply death, does it?

When pressed, embarrassed AWLers say that Matgamna is just “an individual” within the AWL (just as he was when he sympathised with Israel for not wanting to “stand idly by” if it thought Iran might be developing nuclear weapons).6 Utter nonsense, of course. Matgamna is its leading thinker, sets the agenda for the organisation and has a decisive influence on what appears in Solidarity every fortnight. Indeed, Matgamna’s piece was not merely a “debate article” - its political message found expression on the front page of the May 14 issue of Solidarity, which said: “Stop the BNP! Vote Labour or SSP!”, along with: “But the unions should clean up Labour”. This was in direct contrast  to the previous issue, which headlined: “After the budget cuts: what will the unions do about politics?” (April 23). And, just to compound the confusion, the latest edition reads: “Euro poll: racist vote on the rise. Build a Socialist Alliance to fight back” (May 28).

This inconsistency can in part be explained by the fact that Matgamna’s changed line adopted in the May 14 issue came about without any discussion whatsoever - not even at the level of the executive committee - the organisation’s highest political body between conferences.

Leading AWLers, such as Mark ‘Israel had a point in Gaza’ Osborn and Janine Booth, are quite rightly livid about Matgamna’s arrogant contempt for basic organisational democracy. Osborn was “surprised” when he picked up his copy of Solidarity, remarking: “It was the first I’d heard of the new position.”7 Comrade Booth described Matgamna’s behaviour as a “flagrant breach of the AWL’s rules and of democratic processes within the group”, pointing out that the AWL constitution states that members “should first raise political questions on the highest body on which they sit - branch, national committee, executive committee”. Further, she rightly points out that, although Matgamna’s “debate” piece on the front of the AWL website claims to present “current exchanges and background”, it “clearly comes across to anyone not ‘in the know’ that Sean’s view is the AWL’s view and that those who disagree are the dissenters - ie, the opposite of the truth”.8

Conference stitch-up

Matgamna’s loyal number two, Martin Thomas, was quickly brought to heel by his leader and, ever since, the two of them have been conducting a struggle against the ‘old line’ in the organisation - ie, against the national committee document for the AWL conference calling for disaffiliation from Labour and drafted by Thomas himself!

Understandably Thomas no longer wished to present this document to the conference (which took place on May 30). Given that divisions on the question reach right to the top and the duumvirate did not relish the prospect of a drubbing at the hands of the membership, a compromise “procedural motion” was put forward by the EC. This pledged to “continue the debate on the Labour Party” until a second conference in early November, which will vote on the question. Until then, however, the national committee decision to back disaffiliation from Labour stands.

In the meantime Thomas is focussing on one short passage in the original document he drafted (before he did his mother of about-turns). This reads: “Our main focus in elections should be to campaign positively for our own candidates and other socialist and labour movement candidates, but tactically it will still be best for the time being to favour a Labour vote as the default option in contests where there is no positive better option.”9

Understandably, this manoeuvring provoked a certain degree of internal dissent. Daniel Randall asks: “Why should the mere existence of a minority deprive the majority for voting on the policies on the table? If I wake up tomorrow and find that I believe my own … document to be drastically mistaken … I would explain why and argue at conference against voting for the document. I would not, however, expect the very act of voting at all to be put on hold to give me more time to convince people of my position.”10 Quite right.

As usual, Martin Thomas is the henchman seeking to restrict debate in typically bureaucratic fashion - calling comrade Randall to task for allegedly not raising objections according to proper procedures. It is worth quoting Randall again:

“I do not understand my own position to be diametrically at odds with the position Martin and Sean held until about two weeks ago. I therefore reject the accusation that I failed in my duty to bring to light a disagreement I had with NC policy within the proper time-limits/channels. I also reject the accusation that my belief that AWL conference should still vote on the motions presented to it is somehow authoritarian or bureaucratic.”11

A new Socialist Alliance?

Randall and many of the other comrades arguing against the latest U-turn proposed by Matgamna and Thomas are amongst those calling for a new Socialist Alliance-type formation. Indeed, Cathy Nugent, editor of Solidarity, recently appealed in the AWL paper to Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party members to help form a new SA.12

(There was, of course, one obvious omission from the ‘To’ field in Cathy’s email to other left organisations - the group that alongside the SP jointly initiated the London Socialist Alliance and thus got the ball rolling for the project as a whole - the Communist Party of Great Britain.)

It goes without saying that a call for a new Socialist Alliance represents a diametrically opposite approach to that proposed by Matgamna, who was not exactly enamoured by the SA first time around. In fact he had problems even sounding the words ‘Socialist Alliance’, preferring instead to label it the “Socialist Workers Party Alliance” - a reference to the SWP’s numerical domination of it. AWLers were not SA partisans like the CPGB (in spite of our size compared to groups like the SP and SWP, we contributed more in terms of cash than any other supporting organisation).

Given this history, it seems rather odd for comrade Nugent to be pushing a revived Socialist Alliance - and she continued to do so in the pre-conference issue of Solidarity, don’t forget. Her appeal relies on AWL members either having very short memories or being utterly cynical. Are they now expected to argue that the old SA really was a jolly good initiative that could have taken us forward if only the SWP and SP had been as committed to it as the AWL?

Of course, on one level, this is all academic. Comrade Nugent knows very well that there is not a hope in hell of the SWP and SP even bothering to reply. Nor is she serious about trying to set up a new alliance. But, on another level, it is quite pertinent to the AWL controversy over the Labour Party - to the extent that the AWL did participate in the SA, it - like the SP and the SWP - pursued the utterly pointless politics of seeking to create a Labour Party mark two.

The ‘priority pledges’ put forward by the AWL were limited to ‘bread and butter demands’ such as ‘Tax the rich’, ‘Slash the arms budget’, ‘The right to join a trade union’ and so on - the Marxist programme of high politics, the patient political struggle to form the working class into a universal class that can master every contradiction, every grievance, every constitutional issue to become genuine tribunes of the oppressed, was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing on the need for the working class to fight and win the battle of democracy.

Of course, the AWL, like the SWP and SP, has responded to the current MPs’ expenses scandal by suddenly discovering the merits of the right to recall elected representatives and other such republican demands (although the call for a popular militia is omitted by all three). But back then our calls for the abolition of the monarchy, second chamber and secret state were dismissed as having no relevance for working people.

We pushed exactly such demands in the SA, just as we push them now, because for us they were linked to what we had in mind for the alliance. Here were all the main revolutionary organisations coming together in what was objectively a proto-party. But, instead of agreeing to unite around our own professed politics, to advocate the only alternative that objectively serves our class - that of Marxism - every one of the other groups thought that we should take up the space vacated by New Labour … by pretending to be old Labour!

And the current AWL row is not between advocates of these two opposing politics. It is about the best way of pursuing exactly the same wrong politics!

No to Labourism, yes to Marxism

Whether in the guise of Bennism, Fabianism or ‘official communism’, the reactionary ideas of Labourism have plagued our movement for too long.

Defeating these ideas, which are so rooted in the British working class, is absolutely central to the fight for revolution. Thus it is utterly fatuous and counterproductive to aim for a “new workers’ party” on the basis of Labourism - in their various ways, the Socialist Alliance, Respect, Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and No2EU have all been examples of this futile halfway house approach. We need something qualitatively different from both old Labour and ‘old Socialist Alliance’. What is needed can only be built by fighting a protracted struggle against Labourism and all manifestations of bourgeois ideology within our movement.

This necessitates beginning the fight for a new, open and democratic party based on the core principles of Marxism - summed up as democracy (in relation to both our own organisations and the state), working class independence (no strategic alliances with bourgeois parties) and proletarian internationalism (in opposition to all sectional and national deviations). This party would also seriously seek to engage with and challenge the Labour left through united front tactics as a way of winning Labour’s base to the politics of Marxism (again, something we put forward in the Socialist Alliance).

Should comrade Cathy Nugent have undergone some sort of Damascene (one could say Matgamnaesque) conversion since her time in the Socialist Alliance, when she was arguing for a Labour Party mark two, should she now be serious about fighting for a party based on Marxism, then we are willing to listen, talk and see how we can take this fight out into the advanced sections of our class. The question is not whether or not we are for a new workers’ party, but the programme such a party must adopt.

It is high time that the left broke with sect amateurism and finally began articulating the politics of Marxism. The fact that neither side in this particular spat is able to do this merely reflects the programmatic and strategic malaise of our movement.


1. www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/07/28/discussion-article-what-if-israel-bombs-iran
2. www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/05/14/discussion-article-labour-and-unions-why-we-should-not-back-cwu-disaffiliation
3. www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/05/20/awl-unions-labour-and-crisis
4. See my report of the LRC national conference for the AWL’s ‘third period Bernsteinism’ in Weekly Worker November 20 2008.
5. www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/04/14/labour-party-stinking-corpse
6. www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/07/28/discussion-article-what-if-israel-bombs-iran
7. AWL discussion list posting, May 16.
8. AWL discussion list posting, May 27.
9. AWL discussion bulletin No283, p19 (www.workersliberty.org/system/files/db283.pdf).
10. AWL discussion list posting, May 26.
11. Ibid.
12. www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/05/14/appeal-socialist-party-and-swp