This article is scheduled for Solidarity 3/85.
Barry Finger says in Solidarity 3/80: "Look at the trajectory of Alan Johnson". Johnson the late-vintage Blairite, he suggests, may hold up to AWL the mirror of its own future.
It was to be expected that AWL might be held politically responsible in some degree for Alan Johnson and Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ), and that there would be people eager to insist on it (I don't mean Barry Finger). For that reason among others, we published the polemic signed by Alan Johnson and Jane Ashworth in Solidarity 3/62, and I wrote an assessment of their politics in relation to ours (see the pamphlet Solidarity with Iraqi workers). But evidently an account of Alan Johnson's political and organisational relations with AWL is overdue.
In fact it is only in the very loosest and long-term sense that the Blairite junior neo-cons who call themselves Labour Friends of Iraq are an ex-AWL group. The idea that they "develop the logic" of our politics is simply a political misunderstanding. Even were we foolishly to think that the US/UK do and will continue to do everything right, do not loot Iraq's economy, are sure to create bourgeois democracy in Iraq, etc., for that to lead us to the politics of LFIQ we would first have to experience a political and moral collapse like theirs, a collapse of political integrity and identity. AWL bears no political responsibility for any of them.
Except for Alan Johnson, the half-dozen or so one-time members of AWL or of its predecessor, the Socialist Organiser Alliance, in LFIQ or on its fringes, have had no political connection with us for a decade; and some of them none for nearer two. For sure, they are a pitiable little coven of turncoats and apostates, but except for Johnson none is a recent or sudden political apostate.
And Johnson ceased to be a member of AWL as long ago as 1994. Though he sometimes wrote for our press, and over the years did a few workshops at summer schools, Johnson has had no organic ties with AWL since then. He has spent the last decade zig-zagging between us, the SWP, and the politics of the later Hal Draper. He has had closer ties with Barry Finger than with AWL, having been a member of the editorial board of New Politics from 1998 to 2004!
As I will demonstrate, his current politics are better understood as a recoil from a long on-off infatuation with the SWP than as a linear development of AWL politics on Iraq, or anything else.
After a long period inactive "because of" his academic job, Alan Johnson formally resigned from AWL eleven years ago, announcing that he was joining the SWP. He didn't stay in the SWP long then. He would join it for a second time five years later, during the Kosova war.
Johnson had long thought that Tony Cliff's hybrid and incoherent version of state capitalism best explained Stalinism. In that he was alone among people in or near AWL, those who hold to a state-capitalist account of Stalinism included.
In mid-1994, he made the sudden discovery that the Cliff sect, the SWP - though he had not noticed before, over the dozen years of his membership of AWL - was a proper revolutionary party. Marxist, as well. And a lot bigger than AWL... The age of wonders and miracles and metaphysical unmaskings had not, after all, come to an end.
His first period in the SWP was very short. The Liverpool district organiser accepted his application for membership and listened patiently while he explained that he had not changed his mind on everything. He still agreed with AWL on a few trivial no-count issues, like, for example, the Middle East, favouring "two states" - an independent Palestinian Arab state alongside Israel - and not the SWP's "smash Israel" position.
She said - according to his own account of it - "Oh, that's all right. That's no problem". Political differences a barrier to membership of the SWP? Don't be silly! They're not sectarians! They'd be happy to have him.
But - as if talking to a political infant, and not someone who, most likely, had been politically active longer than she had - she cautiously explained further: "So long as you don't raise these issues at SWP meetings. Or in the SWP branch. It's quite normal for new members to ask questions, but if we had more experienced members expressing disagreements, that would confuse people".
Like Queen Elizabeth I, who "would not make windows into men's souls", the SWP would let members think what they liked so long as they observed the rites of its church, paid their tithe, and kept opinionated mouths tightly shut.
The strangest thing in this story is that it surprised Johnson. And for sure it did, because he turned in his tracks and withdrew from the SWP.
How could he have expected anything else? Where had he been for the last dozen years? Fighting the SWP some of the time, as a member of the Socialist Organiser Alliance!
He had seen them stand, a self-paralysed stage army of comic-opera revolutionaries, outside the great battles in the Labour Party in the early 1980s.
Seen them utterly disoriented for the first six months of the 1984-5 miners' strike; seen them turn to indiscriminate "anti-imperialism" in 1987-8, and, as part of that, step up their crazed "anti-Zionism".
Seen them, in the colleges and the National Union of Students, harass young Jews who refused to brand Israel as racism incarnate and the most vicious of imperialisms and would not agree that it should be destroyed.
Seen them, in 1992, after 13 years of preaching that nothing could be done because of the general "downturn", start a campaign that was as sudden as it was brief for an immediate General Strike.
Seen them combat the idea of a mass workers' party in South Africa.
And so on; a full list would be very long.
Indeed, on some of these things, he had probably made speeches and written articles. Someone with that background joining the SWP had to have either suffered general amnesia or a nervous breakdown, or else thought things through thoroughly and taken a serious decision to join, joining what they knew and knowing what they joined. And Alan Johnson? God knows!
His decision to leave, on being told that there were a few slight restrictions on democracy in the SWP, was even more astonishing than his decision to join. Nothing in his adherence to the SWP exposed his confusion and disorientation like the manner of his leaving of it!
After that strange SWP interlude, he again gravitated towards AWL, welcomed by simple-minded folk - me, for instance - who thought he would learn from this episode the centrality of ideas in serious socialist politics.
He remained on the fringes, and then more or less faded out. Knowing that he was working on a book on Hal Draper, I tried to get his opinions, and maybe enlist his collaboration, in preparing a collection of "Shachtmanite" material I was putting together. Very curtly on the phone he responded: "I'll get back to you", and hung up. He didn't, until after the book, The Fate of the Russian Revolution, was published. I had, it seems, blundered into the world of "academic" competition.
After "The Fate" was published, Johnson came back more actively to the fringes of AWL, nominating himself as "reviews editor" of Workers' Liberty, to which we agreed.
He wrote an article for Workers' Liberty on Hal Draper and the Middle East, advocating a bi-national state in Israel/ Palestine. In my opinion, it was politically very confused and a long step back from AWL's two-states position. Alan Johnson had never previously expressed differences with us on Israel/ Palestine. I wrote a critical response.
The issue was and is far too important to peacefully let AWL politics on it become blurred and muddled. The work that falls to AWL is too dependent on clarity; the struggle to re-educate the left, and in the first place ourselves, had been too hard and long (it began from 1978 with one person, and then a few people, including one of today's LFIQ Blairites, who spent years moving AWL/ Socialist Organiser Alliance from its old confusion on the question); our success so far had been too limited (we had cleared only a small island in the swamp, and it could easily be engulfed again).
In my reply, I attempted to account for how it is that, although Draper accepted Israel's right to exist and to defend itself, so long as its citizens desire that, his writings on the Jewish-Arab conflict have fed into the stream of the anti-Jewish "anti-Zionists".
Draper, of course, was far from being one of the "absolute anti-Zionists". Indeed (according to James D Young, an eye-witness to their encounter in 1958), he denounced Tony Cliff of the SWP, the most influential British "absolute anti-Zionist", to his face for wanting to destroy the Jewish people of Israel (Workers' Liberty 34, p.44). But at bottom Draper too thought of Israel ahistorically, as an aberration, something that never should have come into existence. It was a Zionist "crime"; and it should give way - voluntarily - to something better as soon as possible.
Draper shared the root idea around which the "absolute anti-Zionists" cultivate their myths and demonisation, that Israel is an illegitimate historical formation. From that it is a short step to the dominant idea of the "absolute anti-Zionist" left - that if Israel will not agree to "replace" itself by something more "legitimate", then it must be forced out of existence, and the Arabs and Arab governments who try to force it must be backed.
Draper's opposition to Arab conquest of Israel and his support for Israel's right to exist were not obtrusive. Readers could easily separate them off from his (to my mind often one-sided, and always far too messianic) denunciations of Israel; and thus his writings could feed smoothly into the septic flood-waters of kitsch-left "absolute anti-Zionism". And they have.
In Workers' Liberty I expressed this view perhaps less clearly than here, and with proper humility in criticising someone who got most things right about Israel/ Palestine long before anyone in AWL or Socialist Organiser did so. Johnson responded to my critical article like someone who finds his cornflakes laced with carbolic acid! In abusive letters he accused me of calling Hal Draper, and himself, anti-semites.
That was not a true reading, or reasonable interpretation, of the article. I do not - and did not - think that. If I had, I would not have been mealy-mouthed in saying it. Nor had I said it inadvertently, through clumsiness. Johnson's "you call me an anti-semite!" response evidently served a need to put himself on the moral high ground.
He withdrew as reviews editor designate, announcing that he would not "serve" Workers' Liberty. I responded mildly and perhaps too unenergetically (I was seriously ill at the time and for a long time after), attempting to reason with him.
It is clear now that with Alan Johnson AWL erred on the side of patience and forbearance. But that is the best side to err on. One reason for patience was that he seemed to take Marxist theory seriously, to work at it - and that is no common thing. He might, so we hoped, one day do something useful in that field.
In 1999 he once again joined the SWP. Why? This time he was bowled over by their 1999 anti-Balkans-war campaign. That campaign was entirely devoted to organising solidarity and uncritical support for Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia - for the primitive Serb ethno-imperialism whose genocidal drive against the people of its long-time colony Kosova was the sole issue in the war. (NATO's bombing stopped immediately the Serbian regime started to withdraw its forces from Kosova). It was "anti-war" in the sense in which the CPGB, making pro-Hitler propaganda during the 20 months of the Stalin-Hitler pact, was "anti-war" in 1939-41.
If there was in the 20th century any war in which a strong case could be made for Marxist socialists to back one of the imperialist blocs - in this case NATO - that was it.
We did not back NATO. They were what they are. What they did, they did for their own reasons, in the context of their broad concerns and interests. Their goals, other than stopping the attempted genocide, were not ours; and even on that, nobody could be sure that they would not rat on the Kosovars as they had ratted on the Bosniacs earlier in the 1990s.
We did not forget what NATO is, or what its component powers are, or what we are - revolutionary socialists mortally hostile to those powers, who in all circumstances maintain our political independence from them and all their projects.
But we did not back or "defend" Serbia, or denounce NATO in such terms as would effectively mean backing Serbia or condoning what it was doing in Kosova.
Alan Johnson, the Blairite neo-con in gestation, was so impressed and enthused by the SWP's "anti-war" campaign of agitation and lying propaganda on behalf of Serbia that once more he enrolled in the SWP! He seemed to have persuaded himself to blot out and forget his experiences of five years before, as he had earlier blotted out his previous dozen years of fighting the SWP. He is good at amnesia! It is the thing he does best.
Once again he tried to combine joining an authoritarian sect with doing just a little bit of "independent" political thinking for himself. Alas, it was muddled, very poor independent thinking. Johnson decided everything with the SWP campaign in support of Milosevic and the genocidal Serbian army in Serbia's colony, Kosova, would be perfect if only to its all-defining rabidly pro-Milosevic agitation SW would add... a call on the Serbian government to get out of Kosova.
The SWP published in its magazine a letter from Alan Johnson offering sycophantic praise for its wonderful anti-war work (practice for the sort of stuff he now writes in praise of Blair!) but adding a suggestion that the SWP should also call on the Serbs to withdraw from Kosova.
Perhaps encouraged by the publication of his letter, he went to the SWP summer school and at a workshop made a speech - no doubt as full of praise as his letter: why wouldn't it be? - saying that all would be perfect if only they would add the call for Serbia to get out of Kosova. The crescendo of abuse this aroused - led by the speaker, Alex Callinicos - drove him from the meeting. He left the summer school... and, once more, the SWP.
This time too, the quick retreat tells us even more about Alan Johnson in politics than his joining the SWP at such a point in its political degeneration. What does it tell us?
The SWP campaign depended on the big lie that Serbia - in fact the object of a great-power international "police action" to stop its genocidal drive in Kosova - was an innocent victim of imperialist onslaught. The entire political basis of the campaign would have been undercut by any recognition that the war was about Serbia's role in Kosova - about the issue on which the call for the Serbian state to get out of Kosova would focus a clarifying light.
The SWP venomously defended its whole-hog Serb-chauvinist politics. (See Patrick Murphy's account of the National Union of Teachers conference in 1999, for example).
It denounced all talk of calling on the Serbian state to withdraw from its Kosova colony. That was what NATO was demanding, wasn't it? That was what the war was about!
How could anybody capable of reading Socialist Worker who was not a political virgin - or, alternatively, an out-and-out political idiot - have so failed to register the nature of the SWP's campaign as to think they could add an endorsement of NATO's demand on Serbia - get out of Kosova - to the anti-NATO, Serb-chauvinist, "anti-war" campaign?
Johnson was unable to register accurately or understand what was going on in the SWP and in its "anti-war" campaign. He thought he could combine the two conflicting propositions in one set of slogans! This was the "oxymoronic" (contradiction in terms) option.
Talk of Kosovar self-determination, combined with the far-more-immediate-in-its-practical-effects call on NATO to stop its war to compel Milosevic to stop destroying the Kosovar entity for which self-determination was championed - that was plain political nonsense. Gibberish. Political oxymoronism! To combine those two slogans was to make nonsense of both, and to show that you either understood neither, or took neither seriously.
After that escapade, Alan Johnson again came back to the periphery of AWL! By now there were people, wiser than some of us, who thought he should be chased away. He agreed, so he said, with our opposition to the second Gulf War in 2003. The last time I spoke to him was at our 2003 summer school, after a heated debate between AWL comrades on the state of the Labour Party. He told me he agreed more with the "pro-Labour-Party" side in that debate. But nobody in that discussion went within a hundred political miles of his current - Blairite - Labour Party politics!
Exactly how or when he developed his present inverted-SWP politics, I can't say. It is of no importance. I submit that the record I have outlined shows that his current politics are more inverted SWPism than "the logic of AWL politics", or AWL taken a few steps further.
I confess that, despite knowing his record since 1994, at first I would not believe it when a comrade told me that Alan Johnson had gone over to the Blairites. Yet if you think about it there is no mystery to it. Alan Johnson is recognisably himself, the same sort of political animal whether the SWP or Blair is the recipient of his delusions, fantasies, and sycophancy. His SWP excursions and his Blairism have a common political root.
His psychology and his undiminishable talent for muddying up any political or theoretical question unlucky enough to attract his attention are part of it . But there is also, and more fundamentally, an objective, political, class-struggle explanation for his desperate zig-zagging over the last decade.
He came into a very different movement 23 years ago, and into an AWL (then Socialist Organiser) that was well-established in the Labour Party, had plausible perspectives for the political transformation of the political labour movement, and workable projects to help the movement along that transformation.
The drift of the Labour Party to the right in the later 1980s, and the political catastrophe of the Blairite coup in the 1990s, has blocked all that off, destroyed the Labour Party as any sort of functioning workers' party. The old Labour Party was not replaced by what we fervently wanted and hoped and worked for, a better class-struggle political movement.
It is still perhaps not impossible for what has happened to be reversed. But only a revolt of (enough of) the unions could recreate anything like the positive elements of the old Labour Party, and even then most probably by a split.
It is easy enough, especially if you are tired, middle-aged, indefatigably self-important, prone to forming blurred, wish-fulfilling, fantastical pictures of reality, to conclude that the working class is finished and socialism merely an opium of the stupid ones who refuse to learn.
It is that situation, fundamentally, that disoriented poor Johnson a decade ago, and sent him wandering around the left, and now into the camp of the right, like a goose drunkenly celebrating Christmas by staggering around the yard for the few minutes after a sharp knife has cut through its neck and removed its head. I've seen both, and, believe me, neither the feathered, eyeless, brain-gone poor goose, lurching and blundering, nor the sentient Johnson made for elevating or pleasant watching.
Alan Johnson, having twice seen visions, as mysterious as they were ridiculous, which told him the SWP was after all a revolutionary party and a Marxist one, and twice in his wandering recoiled, has finally, in extremis, started seeing Blairite visions. He turned back to the Labour Party. To Blair's Labour Party! To Tory Tony (and implicitly to Bush!) To Bush-Blair's "war on terror" and the neo-con mission to bring American-style capitalism and bourgeois democracy to the world.
If you despair of changing things, settle for what there is! If you can't beat them, join them - and fantasise! From desperate fantasy to... desperate fantasy.
Whatever it was about Blair that hypnotised Johnson and his friends, it could not have been his credentials as a democrat. Blair, the "Liberator of Iraq", is at home an authoritarian. He has destroyed or paralysed all the old democratic structures and procedures of the Labour Party, and thereby undermined and diminished democracy in British society. He has sapped what remained of Parliamentary control of government and even of Cabinet control of government policy.
The former British ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, recently described what he saw of Blair and his cronies interacting with Bush and the US government. They were, he thought, seduced by the glamour of US power. I suspect it was the "glamour" and power and authoritarian style of Blair that attracted Johnson and the others to the Blairite camp. Even with Johnson's powers of self-delusion, it can't have been Blair's commitment to democracy!
The reality of the Labour Party and of the Blair government - and its alliance with Bush - confronted Johnson with a choice between once more recoiling on contact - or redefining the terms of his politics. He has chosen redefinition. Maybe it did not happen exactly as I have set it out here, or as neatly. But these are the elements of it. Alan Johnson has gone home to the Labour Party.
But, as the man said, you can't go home again: it is not there any more, the one you knew and want to go to. The old Labour Party, or anything like it, is not there now. And in any case, for revolutionary Marxists it was never a "home", but an arena in which to fight the right wing and the soft and soggy Labour left for political influence on the working class and its movement.
It would be rash indeed to say that Alan Johnson's political wanderings are over. But I suspect they are. It should however be clear from the facts set down here that whatever killed Johnson, it was not AWL politics, or the "logic" of AWL politics.
"In balance with this life, this death"!
"Good God, Holmes! I never saw anything like it. Drowned at his word-processor! 'Pon my soul! Sitting alone in a dry room with the doors and windows locked from the inside. Extraordinary! Foul play? But how? Drowned! I can't understand it, Holmes".
"Elementary political hydronomy, Watson! Observe, my dear chap, observe. Read what the poor fellow had just written. This was the wettest politician of them all! If he were a piece of land, Watson, he'd have been a swamp. I can scarcely believe it".
"Eh? Holmes, you don't mean like that whatchamacallit nonsense, spontaneous combus...?"
"Yes, Watson, I do! It is very rare in nature, but well-known to political science. This, my friend, was a case of spontaneous drowning!"
(From Arthur Conan Doyle's The Salutary Tale of the Waterlogged Scribbler).