AWL: Siege mentality
Conference is where political differences should be debated out. Paul Demarty reports on an exception
Given the all-round hoo-ha the republication of Sean Matgamna’s atrocious article on religion provoked, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be blow-back within the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty itself.
So far, the organisation has definitely lost one comrade as a result - Matt Hale, also a member of the International Socialist Network, was only in the AWL for a couple of months, and his departure will not cause any real pain, although recruiting him was a loudly trumpeted coup.
Comrade Hale was not the only member perturbed by formulations which, even with the most extreme charity, one must call delusional. Others, alas, are not quite so charitable. “This article is racist,” writes Chris Marks, in the opening post of an email thread on the AWL’s internal list that runs to some 30,000 words in total. As often with email threads of this nature, the arguments are at once circular and tend to spin off on tangents. What was obviously and direly necessary was a forthright debate - in person - between the AWL majority and a small but significant minority.
How fortunate, then, that the AWL’s conference was coming up! Such, presumably, was the thought process of comrade Patrick Smith, who tabled an emergency motion calling on the AWL to distance itself from and apologise for the article. People higher up in his own organisation, let us say, did not see things that way. For over a week, comrade Smith was put under all kinds of pressure to withdraw the motion; long phone calls ensued. At one point, he discovered that his branch secretary had told AWL centre that he had withdrawn the motion; at another, it was conveniently ‘discovered’ that his dues were in arrears.
Presumably drawing on his experience of cracking heads with Labour Party bureaucrats, Smith faced all this down, only to be asked to appear at conference a full 90 minutes prior to registration, to find himself cornered by an irate pairing of Martin Thomas and Paul Hampton - the lawyer and the oaf - who barracked him until others began to arrive.
Having failed to secure the desired withdrawal, there then ensued that most dispiriting kind of debate - to decide whether or not the motion would be taken. Under no circumstances, supposedly, was anyone to speak as to the content of the motion; but this idiotic ruling was promptly transgressed by Thomas, at which point the meeting descended into a cacophony of protest and counter-protest. In the end, two thirds voted not to discuss comrade Smith’s proposal.
That is a pretty serious level of tetchiness about one little motion (which, presumably, would have been defeated anyway). The question imposes itself: why is the AWL leadership so concerned to avoid debating a position it has itself thrust, for reasons unknown, back into the spotlight?
Perhaps it is because its defences are so lame. Take the professionally obnoxious Mark Osborn, the AWL’s own Amy Leather. His first words on the email comment thread are straight out of the Osborn playbook (and true as far as they go): “It is not a Marxist response to read something on Facebook and shit one’s pants.”
In any case, he thinks Sean is absolutely on the money about Islamists being “primitive”. “One thing struck me during an old documentary about the Taliban: their leadership was sat around in a circle on the floor when someone explained the function of a gynaecologist to them; they started giggling like little children. These people are deeply, deeply backward.” Is ‘I saw it on the telly’ a “Marxist response”, Mark?
A more serious answer to the question is suggested by his contribution in the pseudo-debate at conference, which can be paraphrased thus: if somebody calls an article in the paper racist, you do not read the article. Instead, you roll it up and hit your interlocutor with it. Like the Viennese of the 16th century, the AWL (if you believe its leaders) is constantly under siege. It is through this mentality, rather than political argument, that it coheres its members.
Beyond that, it has to be said that not much coheres the AWL at all. An anecdote, from earlier this year, bears repeating here. The AWL is not the only besieged force on the British left these days; it is in the handsome company of the Socialist Workers Party. At the latter’s Marxism festival, the co-hosts at the University of London Union issued a statement condemning their visitors as rape apologists, strongly implying that they would cancel the booking if they had the power (which, fortunately, they do not).
The instinctive reaction of many - including myself, and colleagues on this paper - was to smell the AWL’s hand in this. Even after the AWL issued a statement to the contrary, we were left with the history of similar underhand tactics on the part of the group, and the fact that one AWL comrade, Dan Cooper, is on the ULU leadership, while a close supporter (Michael Chessum) is its president.
It turns out that we were wrong; that Cooper was outvoted, and the AWL’s core was thoroughly embarrassed by the whole business. Yet restoring order was hardly unproblematic. A good many AWL members were sympathetic to the bureaucratic feminist arguments for boycotting the SWP in this manner; leading AWLers had to expend a lot of effort whipping their charges into line.
The AWL is structured according to the classic Dime bar advert - soft on the outside, hard on the inside. Leading members, like Sean Matgamna, Mark Osborn and Martin Thomas, are hardened sectarian warriors, who have turned over almost every organisation on the British left at least once. Their principal recruiting ground, however, is among students, who are recruited on - if anything - an even softer basis than the SWP. The AWL is particularly soft on the feminism that quietly breeds in NUS women’s campaigns, and the infrequent glances I have had into the AWL’s internal debates reveal conclusively that this brittle mindset is common among its younger members. Its tilt towards ‘inclusivity’ in language coexists, then, unevenly with the diatribes of a sectarian as hidebound as Mark Osborn.