Many of the people who left the SWP recently, and some others who quit SWP longer ago, have formed an “International Socialist Network”.
ISN said it was interested in left unity and broad discussion on the left, and many local ISNers are genuinely open-minded, so AWL wrote to ISN proposing discussions.
ISN secretary Tim Nelson wrote back on 30 April:
In response to your email. We will not be holding talks with your organisation. Although we are devoted to unity on the left, we believe there to be far too many issues on which we differ. We see the anti-imperialist struggle as one of fundamental importance to the working class, and your continued support for Israel, and for the Western occupation of Iraq, is something which we cannot reconcile with principled socialist politics.
Furthermore, we believe your position on Islam is exceptionally right-wing, to the point of being racist.
We believe these problems are rooted in the Zionist position your organisation has adopted. Zionism is a racist ideology, and cannot, in our opinion, be adopted by socialists. Such differences cannot be resolved in round table talks, and we believe to attempt it would be futile.
This just states the position of the Steering Committee, not the entire organisation. We will be having a national meeting soon, which can of course overturn any decisions we make. In this case, however, we think it very unlikely that that will happen.
Tim Nelson, IS Network Steering Committee
We responded immediately:
Thanks for your letter. You seem to have accepted SWP misinformation about our politics. One of the advantages of discussion is simply to find out what others’ real views are.
More should be said.
The idea that any difference that cannot be “resolved in round-table talks” should rule out discussion is, for a start, a recipe for closed-off sects. The differences between Marxists and mainstream Labour people, for example, are “big” in the sense that they will not be cleared up in an evening round a table; and yet we not only allow, but positively wish for, discussion. Over time, helped by the experience of class struggle, people’s ideas change in “big” ways.
All the existing groups with a clear political profile are separated from each other by “big” differences. If “big” differences rule out discussion, then the groups will never discuss with, but only curse, each other. And when the groups develop “big” differences inside their own ranks, which they surely will if they are politically alive, what then?
Your idea that the way to deal with “big” differences is to exclude discussion is borrowed from the SWP, but “more SWP than the SWP”. The SWP did discuss with AWL between 1998 and 2003, when we were in the Socialist Alliance and its forerunners. Was that a mistake? Should the SWP never have agreed to join the Socialist Alliance?
Even when we can’t discuss, socialists need an accurate picture of our adversaries’ ideas — even Tories’ ideas. If we shelter ourselves by caricaturing our adversaries’ views, then we fail to educate ourselves, and we fail to equip ourselves to reason with workers influenced by our adversaries.
Okay, Tim Nelson doesn’t want to talk to AWL. But how would he deal with the many ordinary workers whose picture of the activist left has been shaped by the SWP, and who consequently reject the left as people who enthuse for Hezbollah and Hamas more than they concern themselves with the plight of the workers around them in Britain? Scream “racist” and refuse to talk?
AWL is anti-imperialist. Imperialism is not just the USA and its allies. We supported the Kosovars against what Trotsky, back in 1913, called “Serbian imperialism”, and the Kurds against Iranian and Iraqi sub-imperialism.
We support the right of the Israeli Jews to a state of their own. We are vigorous opponents of Israeli governments, and supporters of the Palestinians’ struggle to have a state of their own alongside Israel.
Zionist? Historically, Zionism meant the project of building up a Jewish nation in Palestine and a state for it. Marxists argued for Jewish workers instead to join the revolutionary socialist struggle where they lived. They certainly discussed with Zionists: there was a Zionist unit in the Red Army which saved the Russian workers’ state from the assault of the Russian counter-revolutionaries and 14 invading armies.
“Zionist” became a curse-word, deemed akin to “racist” or “fascist”, thanks to a campaign by the Stalinists from the late 1940s. You, like the SWP, rely on the residual influence of that campaign rather than thinking about the issues today.
Now there is a Jewish nation in Palestine. It is a fact, not a project. If “Zionist” means that we uphold that nation having the same right to a state of its own as every other nation, then we are “Zionist”. The curse-word does not clarify. If “anti-Zionist” means favouring the conquest and suppression of that nation by Arab or Islamic armies, then “anti-Zionism” should be rejected.
During the US and UK troop presence in Iraq, we marched in demonstrations against it, but our slogan was solidarity with the Iraqi working class against both the occupation troops and the sectarian militias in Iraq, including the “resistance” militias. “Troops out” was a bad slogan because it implied support for, or desire to give free rein to, the “resistance” militias which threatened to crush the infant Iraqi labour movement and tear Iraq into sectarian statelets. There was nothing “principled”, and even less “socialist”, about it when the SWP made that support for the “resistance” explicit.
We are against Islam as we are against other religions. We are not sectarian secularists who would allow the battle against religious ideas to block or disrupt solidarity between workers of different religions or of none. We understand the need for a unsectarian approach to Muslim workers in Britain in face of the racist right-wing demagogues who target Pakistani and Bangladeshi and other oppressed communities under cover of criticising Islam.
We also support the women and young people in mainly-Muslim communities who rebel against religious and patriarchal authority. We are for secular schooling and against “faith” schools, Christian or Islamic. The disgrace here is that around 2001 the SWP abandoned long-established socialist principle and started to condone the Blair government’s drive for “faith” schools.
The political trend of Islamism, or political Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism, is not at all the same as Muslim religion. Political Islam is, as Tony Cliff wrote in 1946 (about the Muslim Brotherhood), “clerical fascist”, of the same political species as the Catholic-coloured far-right movements of the 1930s in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Croatia, etc. The main victims and opponents of political-Islamist movements are... Muslims.
The SWP shouts “we are all Hezbollah”, recommends votes for the Muslim Brotherhood, and excuses that by representing political opposition to political Islam as sectarian intolerance of Muslim religion.
Do you really want to remain “stuck” with that post-2002 SWP position, refusing discussion with anyone who’d oppose it?