Why I am leaving the AWL

Pat Smith's resignation letter

There are times, of course, when remaining in an organisation you have important political differences with is the right thing to do. It is right to fight for the correct ideas with your comrades, to seek to convince people you have worked with in the movement with for years, and expose wherever possible the undemocratic and disorganising nature of bureaucratic centralism.

During the course of the AWL’s pre-conference period there have been some sharp political differences thrown up between myself and the organisation, not least the political character of Islamic fundamentalism, but also the theory of Imperialism. Taken on their own, these differences would be no reason to leave; indeed, they are reasons to stay and fight.

However, I have been shocked by the response from the group, not just from the Matgamnite clique at the centre of the organisation, but from the majority of members. It is for this reason I have chosen to make my resignation and the entire internal debate public.

It is worth restating that sections of the Matgamna article[1] are simply bigoted. There can be no defence of it. Not just the Islamophobic language, but the chauvinist – worse than chauvinist – world view that it presents; a world view that permeates and informs the entire article, a world view upon which Sean’s explanation for the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism is predicated.

There can and should be a debate about the substantive political content of the article and the wider politics of the AWL. Articles by Simon Hardy [2] and Yassamine Mather [3] are the start of such a debate, but that is separate from and not a substitute for a public recognition of the bigoted nature of the article.

Matgamna’s contribution paints a picture of a world bifurcated into backward and advanced societies; the Islamic world and the West. Throughout the article, the Islamic world is consistently characterised as poor, deprived, outside the advanced capitalist world, and on the fringes of capitalist prosperity. This is in contrast to the West which is consistently characterised as technologically advanced, prosperous, and rich. These characterisations are either directly stated or implied through the contrast of the two worlds.

In Sean's imagination the proliferation of communications technology has led to the Islamic world learning of and subsequently envying the West's prosperity and riches. This, Sean claims, is the material basis for Islamic fundamentalist ideology which fulfils the desire to escape poverty and deprivation by relegating it to the afterlife.

He provides a very different explanation for the rise of Christian fundamentalism, the appeal of which can be found in the “the spiritual emptiness of prosperous capitalism.” He goes on to express surprise at the fact that “primitive religion” is a growing force in “the most technologically advanced society on earth;” the USA.

The general narrative here is one of two worlds; the advanced, prosperous capitalist West, in danger of regressing back into a primitive state of religious ignorance, and a poor, simple, primitive “Islamic world”, already there, enviously “eying” the West.

To articulate this chauvinist world view Sean choses language and imagery that is not simply “problematic”, it is Islamophobic.

Bigotry has no place in a socialist organisation, so one would think that pointing it out on an internal mailing list out would be relatively uncontroversial. Unfortunately this was not the case. Not only did the majority of members mobilise to defend the article’s chauvinism and choice of language, some tried to deny that Islamophobia even existed.

Executive committee member, Mark Osborn, wrote – in a reply that resembled the 19th century social-chauvinism of Bernstein or Parvus  – that “some societies are primitive, or more primitive than advanced Western capitalism… … people in less-well off (more backward, even primitive) societies looking on with envy and jealousy and fear at American riches and power.”

Jim Denham, no doubt in one of his infamous spasms of rage at the injustice of criticism directed against his group, took to the keyboard to tell us that "we should avoid, whenever possible, using the word 'Islamophobic' which is used by fundamentalists and their apologists to deligitimise[sic] all criticism of Islam and/or Islamism and equate ideological criticism with 'racism': a long-running campaign that, unfortunately, seems to have gained some support within the AWL."

While this ‘enlightening’ debate was taking place some 500 people had already shared the article on Facebook and were beginning to quiz AWL members as to their views on the issues it raised. The Executive Committee were forced to produce a response to the group’s critics[4]. This pathetic exercise in double think and misdirection was wholly inadequate and prompted me to submit an emergency motion [5] to the conference.

From the time I submitted the motion to the start of the debate at 10am on Sunday morning I was subjected to a sustained campaign of pressure from about a dozen comrades to withdraw the motion. This took the form of long, tedious debates on the phone, in my branch, and a particularly high-pressure/aggressive double act composed of Martin Thomas and Paul Hampton before the start of the conference.

The Executive Committee proposed to the Standing Orders Committee that the conference should decide as to whether or not it would accept the motion, with two speakers for and two against. An hour was set aside for a debate, either on the motion itself or on the article, depending on the outcome of the vote.

Martin Thomas and Cathy Nugent spoke against taking the motion. It was claimed that the situation was not an emergency and that the motion sought to overturn the “tradition” of the AWL. Martin Thomas, incapable of sticking to the rules of the debate, repeatedly spoke to the content of the motion and engaged in myth-making about what it actually said. In the end, two thirds of conference voted not to discuss the motion, ending any possibility of addressing a situation that was rapidly getting out of hand.

In the ensuing “debate” only two members – myself and Hannah Thompson – raised any criticism of the article. It is unclear as to whether this was because those who were critical of the article were not called to speak or whether they chose not to, but the debate was primarily used to denounce and attack critics and to rally support for the leadership. In one incredible contribution, members were told that is was not even necessary to even read the offending article before springing to its defence. Any critical, or thinking, approach was actually “disloyal” to the group. Moreover, it was even wrong to post their grievances to the internal list. We were asked to show solidarity with poor Sean and told that the Executive Committee’s public response was a defence of us all. Many of the arguments made in that debate are now being rolled out across the internet and in real life in a feeble damage limitation exercise.

The last three weeks have shown that the AWL shares all the hallmarks of the bureaucratic centralist sects they criticise. In scenes reminiscent of the collapse of the SWP, only on a smaller and sadder scale, comrades who have misgivings about the article are told not to express them publicly. Instead they are asked to lie about what they think and defend the group from the onslaught of criticism. Phone calls and impromptu home visits from full-timers await those who dare to ignore this dictat.

It is untenable to remain in an organisation that produces a narcissistic public response that attempts to blame everybody else, fudges the issues, and then changes the subject completely; an organisation in which the majority of people vociferously defend a bigoted article; an organisation that demands and enforces loyalty over critical thinking.

If critical self-examination, an irreconcilable opposition to xenophobia and bigotry,and allowing public dissent are not part of a tradition then that tradition is toxic and I will not remain a part of it.



[3] http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/984/awl-matgamnas-chauvinistic-tirade

[4] http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/10/22/marxists-and-religion-left-seriously-disoriented

[5] Link.