AWL: Failing the litmus test of loyalty
The republication of a chauvinistic article on the Alliance for Workers Liberty website was the spark that led Patrick Smith to resign from the organisation. Mark Fischer asked him about his experience in the group
What is your background in the workers’ movement and how did you first encounter the AWL?
I met the AWL in Hull during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09,1 via the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. I had not really come across any far-left groups before this. When I was at university I never really noticed them, to be honest. I suppose that the real story is that the people I encountered in the PSC were essentially mad - when a leading local member was asked where all the Israelis should go when Israel was destroyed, the answer was, ‘The Jews should go back to Brooklyn’!
In comparison, the AWL seemed fairly level-headed. I didn’t agree with them on Palestine at first, but I thought they were at least somewhat reasonable. In 2010 I was invited to attend the group’s annual school, Ideas for Freedom, and I suppose that’s where I was properly introduced in a political sense. I enjoyed the event; it had some good debates and the whole thing was interesting. So I was drawn to the work of the organisation locally and nationally.
For a brief period I became the informal AWL fraction convenor in the University and College Union. That was followed by taking a leading role in the group’s work in the Labour Party and Labour Representation Committee, particularly in regard to NHS work. Locally, I became the secretary of the Constituency Labour Party.
It seems you didn’t come to the AWL as a naive - you mention your different take on Palestine, for example. So, even before the latest Sean Matgamna monstrosity,2 had you developed some criticisms of the politics of the organisation?
There were a number of things that irked me, particular the scandalous behaviour of a leading AWL member in the UCU, but I suppose the international event that sparked some doubts with the method of the comrades was Libya. To be honest, I was pretty confused by the line. Even as a relatively new member I understood what the majority of comrades were saying, but it seemed to me so bizarre and wrong, and I really wanted to understand how - theoretically - the group had arrived at such a position.3
More recently with Syria, we see the AWL ‘not endorsing/not condemning’ a rotten peace deal. If that’s really the best the organisation had to say about these things, then something has gone seriously wrong.
An important turning point was the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party and most of the left’s response. It sparked me to start to think about programme in a more serious way and in this I found a lot of what you guys had written and featured in the Weekly Worker of use. Much of the AWL’s criticism of the SWP apparatus was straightforward and uncontentious, but the Weekly Worker was taking a deeper, more programmatic approach that I thought would be more fruitful in the long run.
When the controversial Matgamna article was republished on the AWL site, it is clear that you were outraged. But what about other comrades? You’ve described so far a slow dawning on the nature of AWL politics - was it an important moment for others too?
When an AWL comrade sent me selected quotes from the article, I thought he was taking the piss. I went to the article and read it, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was well before it had spread like wildfire on Facebook.
When it was posted on the internal list, as I have written, I was shocked by the response of the overwhelming majority of the group. It is true that there were some sort of queasy misgivings from AWL hacks - some talk of “unfortunate” language from Ed Maltby, for example. And it was Sacha Ismail who initially flagged up the problem of Islamophobia - something that prompted a typical response from loyalists like Jim Denham. Ed and Sacha’s initial responses were about as critical as those sort of people are ever going to get in the AWL, but later they flipped back, of course. They claimed to have reread it - more carefully the second time, I assume - and suddenly realised that it wasn’t Islamophobic or chauvinist at all. And they happily put their names to an executive committee response to that effect.
This is a pretty familiar process from our knowledge of the AWL. Matgamna makes some outrageous public statement. There is disquiet and unease internally even from loyalists like Ismail, often over the leader’s choice of language or the glaring omissions in his analysis. Quickly, however, the whole issue is reconfigured as one of loyalty to the group in the face of a hostile attack by other political trends - Matgamna almost becomes the organisation’s personification.
That’s partially true. I think in the emails that have been made public on your site there is a comment cited along the lines that defence of Sean’s article is now the litmus test of loyalty to the group. A lot of people who were critical of the article didn’t post on the list until really late on.
At one point executive members Mark Osborn and Daniel Randall referred to the debate as an “episode”, then the EC released an unapologetic, unconditional defence of the article, and comrades who had previously been critical of the article apologised; which implied to me that it was over. Then my emergency motion to conference comes out and the whole thing kicks off again to a certain extent.
I really don’t think the AWL centre expected the storm that they got when this thing went up online. As far as they were concerned, it was a minor incident - more of a misunderstanding in the group. Before I posted my emergency motion on the internal list, they probably considered it was more a matter of talking to contacts and reassuring/reconsolidating them, etc. That is, repairing the minor damage caused by the likes of Workers Power and that sectarian stirrer, Richard Brenner!
The leadership wanted the debate to remain internal, to draw a line under the “episode” and cohere the group and its supporters, but I felt it was important to make this an issue for the entire left by making the whole thing public. There’s probably a lesson there for people in other groups who develop important political differences. It took on a life of its own, which I think no-one in the AWL centre wanted.
Despite the AWL’s claims to be an open, democratic group, it appears to have a policy that members should not engage with the CPGB when it can possibly be avoided.
It certainly exists as a de facto policy. When the Weekly Worker made errors in its reporting of recent events at the University of London Union and the AWL’s part in them,4 I suggested to Sacha Ismail that we write to the paper and simply correct them. After all, a lot of people read the Weekly Worker, so why let inaccuracies go uncorrected?
Initially, I convinced him - it’s all on email if there are any denials about this. Sacha argued for such an approach on the EC, but the committee said no, there should be no correspondence, because the group has a ‘general policy’ about it. Sacha explained it along the lines of ‘We don’t want to give the Weekly Worker any encouragement to write about us’ …
We don’t need that much encouragement …
Exactly. But he explained the rationale was that if we wrote in, you’d feel enthused to start attacking us and “lying” about the AWL on a whole range of issues. Nonsense, really …
Lastly, on the opposition. It started off pretty weak and seemed to further enfeeble itself at the AWL conference.
In the first place, there was no coherence in the opposition. Almost everyone in it seemed to have a completely different view of what was wrong with the Matgamna article. So it was very hard for them to arrive at a coherent, unified oppositional line.
At conference, the opposition met and I said to the comrades they should haggle out the minimum they could unite on and submit an amendment to my emergency motion on that basis. However, the incredible decision of the comrades to allow a loyalist representative - Steve Wood, a member of the national committee - into the meeting meant that was impossible. The discussion was constantly diverted and any, even small, coherence that could have come out of it was ruled out.
So there was no amendment, reflecting the fact that the comrades clarified nothing and they are still keeping everything they write criticising the majority internal. (Last time I was part of that conversation I know that some comrades were in favour of making it public - but that’s a minority of a very small minority in the AWL itself).
As a result of that incoherence, no oppositionist stood up to speak in the debate on the emergency motion on the conference floor, apart from Dan Cooper (who wasn’t called).
Conference was the moment to make an impact and challenge the leadership over Matgamna’s article and their dire public response - but that was squandered. Writing an internal document now - weeks after the EC has produced a large amount of material itself - is pretty much a waste of time.
Is this why you felt it right to resign? As you know, we have been critical of the culture of resignation on the left - ie, a serious difference is the cue to walk. Was there really no space to continue a fight?
Part of my decision was an assessment of the opposition’s fighting capacity, myself included. They have yet to secure any sort of public recognition, however slight, that the article is bigoted. Then there was the reaction from AWL centre and the majority of comrades in the organisation. We arrived at a point where everyone outside the opposition - whatever mildly critical stance they started from - came round to saying the piece was totally unproblematic. When you add to that the incoherence and ineffectiveness of that opposition, it just seemed to me a massive waste of time to continue under the constraints that would have been put on me by remaining a member of the organisation.
Mark Osborn explicitly stated that the problems in the group could be put down to a failure to “integrate the youth” into the AWL’s “tradition and political method”. But part of that purported tradition the AWL lays claim to is respect for the rights of minorities, open democratic discussion and accounting for its actions in front of the class. What Osborn’s remarks imply is a yearning for political homogeneity - and my experience suggests this is actually an important defining feature of the AWL tradition, not a personal quirk of Mark Osborn.
There is very little room for a successful rebellion in an organisation like that unless it starts at the top.
1. The December 2008-January 2009 assault on Gaza was codenamed Operation Cast Lead by the Israelis.
2. S Matgamna, ‘Political Islam, Christian fundamentalism, Marxism and the left today’: www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/10/04/political-islam-christian-fundamentalism-marxism-and-left-today-0.
3. The AWL refused to oppose the imperialist war on Libya - see ‘Zig-zagging social-imperialists’ (Weekly Worker December 1 2011) for an overview of the group’s politics by one-time member and now socialist blogger, Arthur Bough.
4. See Paul Demarty’s ‘Siege mentality’ (Weekly Worker October 31) both for an overview of the AWL conference as a whole and the CPGB’s take on this individual incident.