AWL: Pull the other one
In response to Left Unity, the Alliance for Workers Liberty has sent a counter-proposal to most of the far-left organisations. Paul Demarty replies
Comrades, we have received your proposal for a united “transitional organisation” of the left, and read the accompanying explanatory article1 with some interest. We share many of the concerns you have with Kate Hudson’s and Andrew Burgin’s Left Unity project and what you call its “flabby search for consensus”; we agree that “there are real differences between the different groupings on the left, about real and important issues,” and that “for the labour movement to be able to win socialism, we will need to thrash out those issues and develop a coherent strategy”.
In responding to a concrete call for unity such as yours, however, two questions need to be considered: who will it unite, and on what political basis? It is not the case that both questions need to be answered in a satisfactory fashion, of course - the unity of significant forces on a rotten political basis could be a site of intervention to pursue a more principled programme; and the unity even of two groups as insignificant in size as the CPGB and AWL would - if it represented a genuine convergence of views - equally be worthwhile pursuing.
In this case, we do not believe that either condition is met. In the first place, it is exceptionally unlikely that either of the largest groups copied into your email - the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales - will find this proposal attractive. It is, moreover, quite unlikely that any of the smaller groups will respond positively either.
We all know that the SWP is extraordinarily reluctant to place its comrades in a position where they will have to “thrash out” issues in open debate, or more broadly admit that groups smaller than itself are worth talking to at all. A similar sniffiness attends to SPEW’s relations with other left groups, albeit without the often overt hostility of the SWP. Counterfire simply continues SWP politics to its logical conclusion, and is more interested in alliances with Len McCluskey than groups to its left. Socialist Resistance and the International Socialist Network are committed to building Left Unity, and the latter has already given the AWL a brusque brush-off.2 That basically leaves you and us as potential candidates for ‘unity’.
In the light of this, it cannot be said that the political basis of your proposal is adequate. You suggest “a coalition of organisations and individuals, organised both nationally and in each locality, which worked together on advocating the main ideas of socialism, working class struggle, democracy and welfare provision; in support of working class struggles; and in such campaigns as it could agree on (against bedroom tax? against cuts?), while also giving space to debate differences”.
Well, who could object to “space to debate differences”? The trouble is that we also need to “work together” on issues where the left violently disagrees. To be blunt: there are aspects of AWL politics that we in the CPGB find foul, as you well know. You have provided mealy-mouthed left cover for imperialist bloodbaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. We are not prepared to restrict ourselves to merely “debating” issues of decisive and immediate strategic importance to the working class.
We are, of course, not opposed to debating as such. The trouble is that the AWL, in practical terms, is opposed to debating those differences. AWL propaganda on, for instance, the Iraq war came with a whole series of caveats - the general line, repeated for most imperialist wars, was: ‘We do not support the US, but we do not call for them to withdraw’. In logical terms, this is simply saying nothing - we don’t support the US, but we don’t not support the US either. In practical terms, it amounts to an attempt to demobilise the anti-war movement, a position for which your comrades refuse to take responsibility by obfuscating the essence of the matter with weasel words.
The ne plus ultra of this behaviour was Sean Matgamna’s infamous ‘What if Israel bombs Iran?’ article, a truly repugnant apology-in-advance for a hypothetical Israeli war of aggression, which contained formulations barely different in essence from the obsessive Islamophobia of a Sam Harris.3 It was presented by an embarrassed AWL as a “discussion article”, which AWL members (apart from a small anti-imperialist minority who subsequently were hounded out of the group) were exceptionally unwilling to discuss in any substantial way.
Indeed, as salutary as a call for left unity in action may be, it is impossible to blind ourselves to the nature and history of the organisation which is pursuing it. Comrades, we have been here many, many times before. The AWL’s operative political method - right back to the International Communist League days - has been to launch unity offensives with other political groups, as a cover for what are in essence shabby recruitment raids.
The SWP, Workers Power (twice: once upon WP’s foundation, more recently via an AWL coup in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts), the Alan Thornett group which has ended up as Socialist Resistance - all are spurned suitors to the AWL. You protest that you are on the side of the angels in each case; but this is just a piece of spurious self-exculpation that makes the underlying sectarianism all the more noxious.
As an example from history, your article cites - quite correctly - the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, which brought together “at least five major groupings previously at odds with each other, and many individuals and smaller groups”, but you miss the other side of the coin. The CPGB was formed by means of uniting different political trends, but also by a whole series of splits.
There would have been no CPGB if the social-chauvinist, Henry Hyndman, and his comrades had remained in charge of the British Socialist Party; if pro-unity elements of the sectarian Socialist Labour Party had not been prepared to split it. Above all, there would have been no CPGB if the international communist movement had not enforced a split with social democracy.
For a genuine communist party, or even proto-party, to be founded, splits will again be necessary: to be concrete, the left groups will have to break with the bureaucratic sect regimes that present the most enduring obstacle to unity. The AWL leadership, for all its pretensions to transparency and openness, is precisely such a sect regime.
We are happy to work with AWL comrades on matters in the movement where our views accord in any case - no “transitional organisation” is necessary for that. A thorough and open break with the sectarian method you use and pro-imperialist politics you espouse - and the leading clique which maintains both - are preconditions for any ‘unity’ overture from your organisation to be taken in good faith. Until then, the only possible response to such approaches is extreme scepticism.
Paul Demarty (on behalf of the Provisional Central Committee)
3. www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/07/28/discussion-article-what-if-israel-bombs-iran. Matgamna talks of Iran’s “clerical fascist rulers [who] might see a nuclear armageddon, involving a retaliatory Israeli nuclear strike against Iran in the way a god-crazed suicide bomber sees blowing himself to pieces”. Not like those hawkish members of the Israeli knesset, who are the very picture of proportion and reason!