Friday, 23 May 2008

Why the British Left sucks: appendix

Alliance for Workers Liberty

I dismissed this lot in a paragraph way back when...but I now realise that this was grossly unfair. This is because I have dedicated whole articles to slagging off the snoozeworthy CPB, the well-meaning but poisonously mental CPGB-ML, and all the rest...but not one to the AWL, who are the worst group on the British Left, full stop. If there's a single reason why the global left would be better off if Britain just sank, drowning us all, it's the AWL.

Why? What can have gone wrong?

A long time ago, there was an Irishman - born in County Clare - who got tired of the old country and moved to Manchester. There, he joined the Young Communist League, before rapidly defecting to the more revolutionary but utterly mental Socialist Labour Leage, then the largest Trotskyist group in Britain. The SLL - and its successor, the WRP, was run by the petty tyrant Gerry Healy, whose political method consisted chiefly in beating up factional opponents, branding them state agents and muttering about having them shot come the revolution. Amazingly, our forthright hero lasted four years before being expelled in 1964, joined Ted Grant's increasingly social-democratic group, before leaving them in 1966. For the next two years, he was the patriarch of his own (very) little gang, which he lead into Tony Cliff's International Socialists. By now, for those who haven't been keeping track, he had been in five radically different groupings in less than a decade.

Our hero's time in the IS, however, was short; he immediately fell out over the IS's soft line towards British troops in Ireland, and came to believe that workers control existed in some catholic areas of Ulster. This was too much for Cliff, dedicatedly tailing factory-floor conciousness at the time, and it wasn't long before his faction was expelled.

Since then, our hero - whose name is of course Sean Matgamna - has led his own group, and become one of the main patriarchs of the British left. At the time of the split with IS, it's worth noting, Matgamna:

-Believed that the USSR was a degenerated workers state;
-Called for victory to the PLO in Palestine;
-Spunked himself over the Provos in Ireland;
-Excoriated all who did not do the same, and most who did for doing it the wrong way.

Now, after a few fusions and a few more splits, the AWL has abandoned all of that, barring the general method of the last point. Matgamna has swallowed the Shachtmanite doctrine of 'bureaucratic collectivism', and not only supports a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine (in which he is not alone), but openly identifies as a Zionist and denies the right of return; he has spent a truckload of ink trying to prove that when he called for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Ireland in the 70s, he didn't really mean it; and all who do not do the same are now 'kitsch', 'mad' or 'left anti-semites'.

The Matgamnist method is a most remarkable thing. First, you declare yourself in favour of fluffy bunnies; then you launch vicious attacks on all those who think that a call for the defense of fluffy bunnies betrays an off-colour set of political priorities; then you conclude that, after all, these people are kitsch, left-fluffy-bunny-ophobes, who deserve nothing but contempt from reasonable people. After all, who could be against fluffy bunnies?

Then, use your new evidence of the degeneracy of every other group on the left to slip in a genuinely and incontrovertibly scabby position. Say, refuse to call for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq - hell, refuse to call for mediated and conditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq. When the work-experience boy at Socialist Worker deconstructs your bullshit after five minutes dope-addled thought, reaffirm the total degeneracy of the kitsch left. Guaranteed to rally any recruits stupid enough to have fallen for it in the first place.

It's barely worth going into the reasoning; point one is that if troops were to disappear tomorrow, it would be a terrible free-for-all (the problem being that the fact that we raise the demand does not mean it is going to happen - a point made by one Sean Matgamna against the IS leadership on Ireland); point two is that calling for troops out now is to share a political position with reactionary islamists (but it's alright, apparently, to share a position with George W Bush); point three is a detailed argument about the current state of imperialism, only slighty undermined by the fact that it's completely wrong (see Mike Macnair).

But it's the logical knots they tie themselves into that really start to grate. Chiefly, they claim that under the occupation there is some "space" for the workers movement to develop, which would disappear were the troops to leave. But they nevertheless insist that imperialism plays no progressive role at all, and act extremely hurt when people put that word in their mouths. Which begs the question: what do you have against providing space for the workers movement that this doesn't count as progressive, exactly? Is not acting as a bulwark against the barbarian hordes of clerical fascism, which eats trade unionists for breakfast and feminists for brunch, a progressive act? Well, it is, actually. Just admit it. No wonder that Nick Cohen thinks you're a bunch of tossers. So, whether or not he thinks he does, Matgamna assigns a progressive role to imperialism. To claim otherwise is humpty-dumptyism.

The problem is that the US occupation doesn't do these things, cannot do these things and could be unproblematically predicted from day one not to do these things (read an average Solidarity article on the issue, and it seems to have come as a surprise to the comrades!). It has built up these reactionary forces from the start, currently acts in alliance with the most powerful militias, and (lest we forget) has not been averse to some independent workers-movement-smashing operations of its own. The 'space' offered to the Iraqi workers movement by the US troops compares unfavourably to the 'space' offered to prisoners in Gitmo.

To point all this out to the comrades is like huffing and puffing at a 5 year old's house of cards. The reactions range from hysterical to bloodthirsty. And here's the thing. The AWL isn't terrible on factional rights and so on - various shades of opposition to this line have appeared in the paper, most notably the scarily-brainy David Broder. But factional rights is simply not enough. The entire political method of Matgamna is the hysterical denunciation, to bury political differences under moralistic invective. In this, he is the progeny not of his beloved Hal Draper, but of another angry Irishman, who once had a little gang called the Socialist Labour League. And if you removed from the Healy group the random expulsions and beatings, the political culture left over would be that of the AWL - a poisonous atmosphere, barely conducive to anything more than submission to the whims of the increasingly unbalanced patriarch, and utterly inappropriate to anything so vulgar as talking to other sections of the left.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

What could go wrong?

I will leave to the Weekly Worker the general story of the ramshackle Reclaim the Campus! conference organised by Alliance for Workers Liberty student front Education Not for Sale. Suffice to say, the organisation was qualitatively transformed from the AWL plus a handful of punky anarchist types plus a couple of slick greens into...the AWL plus a handful of punky anarchist types plus a couple of slick greens plus Revo. (Don't think any putative future Trotsky's going to be penning three volumes on ENS, somehow.)

The whole thing is set up to be thoroughly uncontroversial (though AWL majority types, fond as they are of daisy-cutters and 'surgical strikes', will no doubt be moderately irked to see written into the "new", "improved" - ok, it is an improvement - ENS's founding statement a clear call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Somewhere on capitol hill, a Texan is shitting himself, I'm sure), and indeed the first session of the day was a painfully agreeable "workshop" on "the marketisation of education".

I mean, seriously.

Get a bunch of student leftists into a room, no doubt not stupid people, with interesting and unique opinions that deserve to be tested against one another, and the first session may as well be called "why neoliberalism is, like, shit". What could go wrong? Who could disagree with that?

Well, busters, first there's the title. Marketisation of education? Is that even a word? I suppose it is, presumably meaning the introduction of markets into an economic activity where previously there were none, or fewer. But it's not at all clear that this is what's happening to education at all. Loads of things are being privatised, but that's not the same thing. It's perfectly possible for a gang of state bureaucrats to transform themselves into private owners without so much as a whiff of the market appearing anywhere in the process. Most of Blair's ghastly initiatives to hand the school keys over to dodgy evangelists and used car salesmen, after a brief and pseudo-competitive tender process, result in epically-long-lasting contracts and a n effective monopoly over insert-suburb's secondary education.

This is not to say there are no markets. School dinners are generally supplied by the lowest bidder, for instance. And top-up fees was an abortive attempt to introduce a limited kind of market among higher education institutions (which is likely to become much less abortive next year). But the transformation that is taking place - the agenda's advertised title, referring to neoliberalism, was closer to the mark - is a more general thing, organically and intimately tied by a thousand threads to the objective interests of capital in the 21st century. In places, it involves the sprouting of markets - but in a great many more, it is embodied in the failure of markets, long-term franchises, and massive extension of state intervention.

The problem with NUS, contra Sofie Buckland (whose opening, the first of three, was mostly concerned with the esteemed student union), is not that it's run by a bunch of bastards. It's that it's structurally doomed to be run by a succession of bunches of bastards, and sits in a special place in the late-capitalist social formation reserved for organisations to be run by bunches of bastards. Talking about "marketisation" actually misses the fundamental feature of neoliberalism - the contradiction between the rhetoric of market and choice and the objective necessity of intimate state funding, management and regulation of all "marketised" enterprises. It's a declassed, blind and ideological approach. (But hey, it keeps that nice Aled fellow on board, so who cares?)

There's more nitpicking to be done yet, don't worry. What about second platform speaker Tom Unterrainer, "NUT activist" (is anyone just an XYZ activist? No, of course not, and one can read countless articles by Comrade Tom on...the Workers Liberty website!)? He described, accurately enough, an increasing tendency towards directly instrumental education - A-levels in Tesco studies and so on. He appeared to be pining for the loss of "education for its own sake", the gloriously pointless humanities, the simple beauty of a well-differentiated trigonometric equation...Of course, if you put it to Tom directly, I'm quite sure he would agree that it's never quite been like that. Still, this is an assault, and since Tom is not a liberal, we assume it is an assault on a hard fought gain of the working class.

But he's wrong. It's not. The hard-fought gain of the working class is that there are schools for them at all, and that there are secondary schools, and opportunities for A-levels, and - who knows? - university...The curriculum, even (if not especially) in its less functionalist forms, is cut to measure for the ruling class. The kids learning to be Tesco cashiers today may once have been (for example) reading Shakespeare. I would rather read Shakespeare than learn what button will put through a portobello mushroom, but one does not have to be overly cynical to deduce the highly significant ideological content of the old fashioned approach.

It ultimately goes back to Matthew Arnold who, realising that the bourgeoisie was a pack of dreadful philistines and the proletariat actually developing a culture far in advance of its immediate superiors, immediately undertook to recommend the inculturation of both classes into an awareness of their proper place in the National community. Arnold was mostly concerned with the Great Tradition of English Literature, but it was not a stretch for the humanities to give their own tory-englander spins on the theme. Geography was about maps (of the Empire)...history was about chaps (of the Royal variety).

Indeed, one of the interesting side effects of the transformation/instrumentalisation of the curriculum is the death of "maps" and "chaps". Policy-makers are more interested in testing "useful" skills - it is no longer in their interests to bore children to tears with the tale of which Henry did what, but rather to do source analysis on any source worth analysing. The total regimentation of the educational process, its orientation towards successive waves of exams, has as its corollary the reconstruction of content into abstract pseudo-commodities, one as good as another. This trend is repeatedly excoriated in the tory press, who yearn for the return of culture, of shakespeare, maps and chaps. They cannot see the wood for trees - or rather, the wood is in their interests, but the trees are foreign breeds, offensive to their tastes.

Lastly, academic Sarah Motta told us about the neoliberalisation of academic departments. Much of this was uncontroversial, the same sort of stuff that Alex Callinicos, in one of his more lucid moments, detailed in his nice little pamphlet Universities in a Neoliberal World. But again, there was a tic of inaccuracy - the slightly po-mo-inclined Motta insisted that the effect was to reinforce traditional class-race-gender heirarchies in the academy. But this does not square up with the positive explosion in this period of gender studies, ethnic and race studies (and the kaleidoscopic variety of specific-minority disciplines), queer theory, postcolonial theory, subalternity, yada yada yada.

It is not that traditional heirarchies - which, let us be clear, is straight WASP males running everything - are being reinforced as such. It is rather that the real social forces clamouring for liberation of this or that group are bein undermined by the promotion of specific, disarming, discourses about them. Identity politics is a positive manoeuvre of bourgeois power to inoculate itself from the dangerous, revolutionary energy these issues carried forty-odd years ago. It pulls minorities towards itself, all the better to throttle them.

The point of this exercise is not that Sarah Motta's incomplete perspective is a pernicious influence on the left, or that Tom Unterrainer should not involve himself in fighting the Tescofication of schools, or that the difference between "marketisation" and "neoliberalisation" as theoretical paradigms for viewing developments in education is a fundamental political dividing line (as if the AWL is short on those). Rather, it's a diatribe against "obviousness" in political discourse. The choice of the cosyest imaginable topic for this "workshop" not only deprived activists of a precious hour of their lives that could have been spent talking shop on what the new ENS was actually to be: it also allowed serious theoretical errors to slip in under cover of "obviousness", and the chummy and anecdotal style of debate that followed the openings merely exacerbated the problem. Comrades, let's fight! It's more fun, and far more educational for all concerned.

Reply to Workers Power


I am glad that you have decided to set out your differences with the Hopi project in a principled and reasonably clear manner. The document “Hands off the people of Iran: campaign for action or propaganda bloc?” (all quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from this article) compares favourably with the hysterical response of the Stop the War bureaucracy, and the internally-contradictory sect-cohering cynicism of Workers Liberty, to name but two.

Political Centres

There are differences that are not really differences, in my view. Most of the arguments on the relationship between Hopi and Stop the War are rendered effectively null – we could not intervene as a group in StWC if we wanted to (as indeed we do – it was only in response to our application for affiliation that we were excluded, remember). The exclusion of Hopi and Communist Students from Stop the War was nakedly absurd at the time, and is not worth going over again – Workers Power and Revo’s support at the time was appreciated.

It seems that the comrades behind your document are suffering some confusion over what exactly constitutes a “political centre”. This does not designate the organisational structure into which the anti-war movement is placed, but the programme at its heart. Hopi and StWC are not two different potential/actual political centres for the anti-war movement. Of those two, in fact, only Hopi has that potential - the StWC is an entity far broader than its strict programmatic adherents (remember the absurdity that the CPGB is affiliated, while Hopi and Communist Students are excluded for being CPGB fronts!). The StWC leadership, rather, is the current political centre. This was why we were excluded – we were not setting up an alternative to Stop the War, but an alternative to Andrew Murray and the SWP inside Stop the War.

This leads on to an important difference between, certainly, the CPGB and its hopes for Hopi (and the StWC) and Workers Power. Your comrades mention the run-up to the Iraq war, where you raised the slogan “victory to Iraq”. In the CPGB, our slogan was a little less direct, but substantially no more “third-campist” – “rather the defeat of imperialist forces than their victory”.

The reason for the similarity is quite simple – while Saddam Hussein and his cohorts were a direct enemy of the oppressed masses in Iraq, they certainly were not comparable in terms of the scale of their threat to the forces of American and allied imperialism, and no less dedicated to the well-being of those masses (as is blindingly obvious as the skulls pile up five years into the war, but was quite clear then after 10 years of sanctions); one does not need to be a full-blooded “revolutionary defencist” to see that.

The reason for the distinction is a little more obscure – while an unqualified “victory to Iraq” implies[1] support to the Iraqi state, political or military (I will get onto the usefulness or otherwise of that distinction later), the call for the defeat of the imperialists leaves open the question of the agency of that defeat. This is important – only a force with genuine mass popular support and participation can have a chance of defeating the most heavily armed state in the world. If the Republican Guards were to manage to bog down the American tanks in the desert and liquidate all infantry forces and shoot down enough planes, they would have needed that kind of mass support. Saddam’s forces had earned only contempt from the workers and oppressed, and thus collapsed. The comparative success of anti-US militias since then has been a function of the utter hatred of the Americans that runs through Iraqi society – in this situation, literally anyone who stands up to them can command some kind of support from the people at large. Yes, a victory for the Iraqi state would be preferable to the victory of the imperialists – but the Iraqi state was in no position to produce that victory, so enshrining that agent explicitly or otherwise in a slogan is misleading.


The more important difference alluded to above is a general one of approach to anti-war work. “We are socialists,” your authors opine; “the STWC is a mass anti-war organisation that unites many different forces that are not - trade unions, bourgeois pacifist groups, such as CND, religious groups, including Islamic groups, Labour against the War, and so on.” The consequence is not just that linking two slogans, against the war and against the Iranian theocracy, is incorrect, but that your own approved slogan is inappropriate too, “because this would limit the antiwar movement to its explicitly anti-imperialist elements”. Rather, we should march (and do a great deal more than march, as you have correctly argued) on the demand for “immediate and unconditional end to the wars and occupations” (I would prefer withdrawal of Coalition forces, but there you go).

I believe that this is correct as far as it goes, but the reasoning is awry. It is correct because actions are not general but specific – an anti-war action is generally against a war, and if one is marching against a war, the principled demand is for the defeat of the appropriate side (your own state, or an imperialist state). The demand for the defeat of US/UK forces is, for comrades in those countries, a concrete demand for all deployed troops, tanks, ships and planes to come scurrying home forthwith. They will not do so unless they have been defeated, either by political sabotage from anti-war demonstrations or the impossibility on the ground of further serious military operations. “Victory to Iraq/Iran/wherever” is inappropriate simply because it is wrong, and implies confidence in the named state to deliver that victory.

If we are to limit our slogans to preserve the breadth of support to the anti-war campaign, then why should we stop at the “immediate and unconditional” end to deployment? Why stop at that level of principle? It would be easier to keep on board a number of good, sincere activists of the liberal-pacifist type (often people who are pro-direct action), who want a staged withdrawal to avoid “chaos”, or a UN “peacekeeping” force to replace the US for a time. It is obvious, moreover, from the circumstances surrounding the periodic cessation of the “Troops Out Now” demand that it excludes the Military Families Against the War milieu, too.

It is also the case that the forms of action have a political content of their own. To put it more concretely – it is clear that Workers Power’s demand for anti-war strikes was inadmissible for very significant sections of the anti-war movement, not least the labour bureaucracy! Bringing industrial action into the question has the necessary effect of energising the movement into one of direct class-struggle, and that is something alien to a great deal of that constituency that is not “explicitly anti-imperialist”. Should Revo not have left that demand at home, or perhaps attempted to organise strikes itself (or in coalition with other class struggle anti-imperialists)?

The watering down of slogans, in the end, is the practice characteristic of the SWP/Murray axis, and is in no way politically superior to the watering down of actions. By contrast, the task of Marxists in an anti-war campaign is to be the enemy of pacifism and other bourgeois tendencies, and turn it into an anti-imperialist movement. That means raising principled anti-imperialist slogans as much as the need for militant tactics. Although I’m glad you haven’t on a cynical level, Workers Power should be bringing “victory to Iran” to StWC AGMs! You do not need to take my word for it. Were you to consult the fundamental document of Trotskyism, the Transitional Programme, you would find plenty of calls for the Trotskyists to aggressively counterpose their own anti-imperialist programme to those of the reformists, Stalinists and bourgeoisie and, while Trotsky’s demands are far from perfect, there’s no denying that it’s heady stuff – “not one man and not one penny for the bourgeois government”; “substitution for the standing army of a people’s militia”…

What about combining different slogans, however, with different emphases – “no to war, no to the theocracy”? Here, it’s worth stepping back a little.


Imperialism[2] is commonly defined, after Lenin and Hilferding, as the “highest stage” of capitalism, the epoch of the fusion of banking and industrial capital into finance capital, the creation of the great monopolies, and consequently the decline of the always-limited powers of the law of value to regulate production in a rational way; consequently, it is the epoch of massive expansion of territorial empires, of the export of capital and the political domination of the world by the metropolitan bourgeoisies, and of catastrophic outbreaks of war.

This flies in the face of the obvious – it is clear that the set of territorial empires that exploded into the First World War, for example, are not novel to the epoch of trusts, monopolies etc. but go back to the very birth of bourgeois power. Many were themselves based on feudal relations, or at least a political culture borrowed from feudalism (significant elements were present everywhere but France in the 19th Century). As manufacture and ultimately industry begins to grow, so does the need for colonies and their raw materials (particularly in the case of small countries such as Britain), but more importantly, so does the need for a world market (though this, too, is present from day one – the price of wool on the world market was responsible for the Enclosure Acts which constituted the opening shots of proletarianisation in England, described vividly by Thomas More’s Hythloday).

Just as the domestic market requires a State to enforce contracts and a generally stable environment, the world market requires order between nations. This has resulted effectively in the need for a hegemon state - first Britain, then the USA. Fundamental to capitalism is the hierarchy of nations. Competition between nations for hegemony, and the consequent increase in military production (a sector necessarily much closer to the state than others), drives the centralisation and “trustification” of national capitals, and results in inter-imperialist war. Where inter-imperialist war is rendered problematic, the fight is conducted through proxies.

A subsidiary consequence of all this is that as soon as a national bourgeoisie assumes power, wherever they are (imperialist centre or ex-colony or semi-colony), their immediate interests lie in integration into the world market. Since integration into the world economy relies on the hegemony of a state or bloc of states – that is, of the imperialist states – there is a very powerful tendency for national bourgeoisies to act in the interests of imperialism. “Left-nationalists” are isolated and dispensed with.

There are two matters of fundamental consequence for communists:

  1. Imperialism is an unmitigated and continuous catastrophe for the workers movement. To the very limited extent it is capable of anything “progressive” (ie, the building up of productive forces in particular primarily-extractive industries in semi/colonies), it is relatively reactionary compared with the possibility of proletarian socialism. Communists must resist imperialism and imperialist actions wherever possible.

  2. However, non-imperialist states are class-divided entities. The bourgeoisie and its “unproductive consumers” in the state-repressive and state-ideological apparatuses are objectively bound towards collaboration with one or more imperialist states – the ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’, as the Stalinists would put it, is simply a comprador class in waiting. Anti-imperialist strategy must also be co-ordinated towards breaking the masses from their rulers, through agitation on the ground and solidarity work abroad. This is the best thing about the TP on this point – the demand for the popular militia and the drawing of sharp class lines.

For these reasons, I find that the distinction between “military” and “political” support is a bit pointless. I do not believe that the standard CPGB critique – that Workers Power or whoever has no weapons or international brigades to send to Iran or wherever, and therefore their “military” support is in fact a sort of political support – really gets to the heart of the matter. It is plain that Trot “military support” is a call for actual military support, just as the CPGB is not actually a party (which has to be a serious chunk at least of the working class) but a call for a party. My objection is simply that it does not point to a politically important distinction. In the textbook case of China 1925-27, had the Comintern given only military support to Chiang instead of signing the bastard up, they would still have been physically liquidated. This was the one aspect of Mao’s strategy not worthy of the bin – he realised that the Kuomintang was an intractable enemy, and began military operations against it.

A far more useful approach, for me, is the simply-phrased demand for the maximum possible independence of the class forces of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie. In the imperialist centre, we break the masses from the war-drives of their rulers – in the semi-colonies, from the treachery and weakness of theirs. Everything else is tactics.

It is true, moreover, that anti-war work necessarily reaches beyond direct opposition to particular wars. Even the broad-as-a-broad-bean StWC feels the need to march about Trident, about Palestine solidarity – in short about imperialism as a whole, even if it does not always say so. A strategy for an anti-war movement must be a strategy for explicit anti-imperialism.

It would be perfectly legitimate, then, for Stop the War to organise or support protests against Iranian state repression, to invite communist and progressive workers, students and others to speak from its platforms – to weld together the concrete manifestations of the movement against imperialism and war in the metropolis and the periphery. Such work is anti-imperialist – it provides real support to the only forces which are objectively anti-imperialist in Iran. Yes, we can link – and march under – two slogans. The meaning of “no to imperialist war, no to the theocracy” is “no to imperialist war, therefore no to the theocracy”.

[1] I do not mean to accuse Workers Power comrades of unqualified support for the Iraqi (or general semi-colonial) state – the document makes it clear that you consider the Iranian theocracy reactionary, for example. But it is nevertheless standard practice in the English language that, when one talks of a country’s victory or defeat in a war, we are talking of the country’s state – “victory to Iraq” in 2003 meant “victory to Saddam”, not the Iraqi working
class (except in the indirect sense that the victory of Saddam would have spared them an unprecedented nightmare).

[2] In this section I substantially paraphrase Mike Macnair’s work on the subject, developed in a series of articles in the Weekly Worker (July 29, August 5, August 12) and in a number of speeches, openings and papers delivered to meetings and conferences (for example, the Critique Conference of 2007 – sound file here).