AWL school: Missing the point

Paul Demarty shares some brief thoughts on a session dedicated to debating the IS/SWP and its history

Some fun was to be had at the Ideas for Freedom session that pitched AWL patriarch Sean Matgamna against John Palmer on the subject of the International Socialist tradition, and where it all went wrong.

It is true that there was more fun for those of us unhealthily obsessed with the micro-history of the British far left than for others, since comrades Palmer and Matgamna make for an odd pairing by any measure. Both were in the IS in the late 60s and early 70s, in violently opposed factions, and a good part of the discussion was dominated by a rehearsal of that fight.

Comrade Palmer, for his part, gave us a version of this history which will be familiar to any reader of his late co-thinker Jim Higgins’s More years for the locust - the IS represented the greatest opportunity of the post-war non-Stalinist left, developing by the end of the 1960s a rank-and-file policy that was able where it was strong to compete in real terms with the ‘official’ CPGB; it all went horribly wrong with Tony Cliff’s turn to “Zinovievite”, top-down mobilisation, and his developing contempt for the ‘conservative’ IS cadre (such as comrades Palmer and Higgins), as against newly radicalised workers. This process culminated in the foundation of the Socialist Workers Party.

His conclusions for today’s conditions are the stuff of contemporary libertarian cliché - the industrial working class that justified a rank-and-filist strategy, on the one hand, and a tight political regime, on the other, has been dissipated and replaced with a “precariat”; the model instead is the ‘new movements’ with their horizontalist methods (Occupy, etc).

Comrade Matgamna’s response was in substance to ‘demythologise’ the SWP, including the idea that its core analytical ‘innovations’ (state capitalism, permanent arms economy, etc) gave it some unique purchase on working class reality inaccessible to anyone else on the left. He pointed out, also quite correctly, that these ideas were of limited relevance to the SWP’s practice and appeal, and that it has mostly concerned itself with hyper-mobilisation on decreasingly political grounds; and that the bureaucratic internal regime of the SWP had longer-standing roots in the IS days. He called for democratic internal norms as an alternative, and made a pitch for the rights enjoyed by AWL members (at which certain ex-members of the AWL would have had trouble stifling a laugh).

Much of the (highly truncated) discussion from the floor consisted of reminiscences from longer-standing AWL comrades of their IS days; one young comrade objected to the lack of attention given to the women’s question, since it was clear (in her mind) that the SWP crisis resulted from its misogyny. I made two substantive points - that comrade Palmer radically overstated the novelty of today’s conditions; and that, contra comrade Matgamna, it was impossible to consider the SWP’s political degeneration except as an expression of its fidelity to the core political methods of Trotskyism, which the Trotskyist Matgamna is unwilling to criticise.

In the course of this, I made the side point that the SWP crisis was not due to its mistreatment of women, but rather to its depoliticisation and directionlessness. One woman comrade, whom I did not recognise, and the AWL’s prize oaf, Paul Hampton, objected in strong terms to this argument; though it was in flat contradiction to Matgamna’s explanation, he did not bother to correct his charges in summing up. Nobody responded to my substantial point on programme.

I cannot help but feel that this exemplifies a serious problem with the AWL’s political method: it recruits on a very soft political basis, taking in individuals who are not challenged to break with their often straightforwardly liberal prejudices (indeed, the more experienced comrade Hampton encouraged them). So long as young comrades exhibit the proper degree of hostility to the SWP, it matters not if that is on a fatuous feminist basis wildly at variance with empirical reality, or on the relatively more substantial historical analysis proposed by comrade Matgamna.

Now, readers, does this shallow political method remind us of any other groups on the British left? Answers on a postcard …