Principles are indivisible
The Alliance for Workers' Liberty does not expect to be liked for it when, confronting the dominant politics and prejudices of the left and the pseudo left on the Jewish-Arab conflict, we drive wedges into painful contradictions.
If there were not something anomalous and self-contradictory, and thus potentially painful, in socialists advocating, or being willing to accept, the destruction of the Israeli Jewish nation state, then things on the left would be dire indeed. The "left" would not be a left.
And, really, if you think about it, there would be no point in telling people who would not be upset by it that their politics on the Middle East constitute a variant of anti-semitism. There would be no point in even talking to such people! I certainly would not want to talk to them.
The question is not whether people dislike what we say, and dislike us for saying it, but whether what we say - in the pamphlet: "Two Nations, Two States", for instance - is true or false. That must be established by discussion and debate, not by suppression of the criticism - or the critics.
If you arrive at opinions unpopular in your milieu, then you either switch your political mind off and submit to the enervating embrace of the warm, sustaining consensus - the pressure to do this is one of the things which mechanically shores up "established" false ideas and attitudes - or, you follow the advice of Karl Marx in the introduction to Capital:
"As to the prejudices of so-called public opinion, to which I have never made concessions, now as aforetime, the maxim of the great Florentine (Dante) is mine: 'Segui il tuo corse, e lascia dir le genti'." (Go your way, and let the people talk).
In Leeds, on 20 September 2002, I was barred from the platform at a debate on "Marxism and Religion" at All Hallows church because one of the other speakers objected to aspects of my politics on the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East. The incident, trivial "in itself", raises issues that go to the heart of what the left is, and of what it must be, if it is ever again to become a force for progress in working class life
"No-platforming" is not something which those who want to rebuild a thinking democratic revolutionary Marxist left will tolerate, peacefully submit to, or, when it happens, just let go with a weary shrug.
We will not peacefully let ourselves be "no-platformed". Even when we shared the stupid and vicious "anti-Zionism" which still dominates most of the British left, we opposed and fought against the "no- platforming" of "Zionists" (which in practice is usually the "no-platforming" of Jewish organisations and individuals).
The Leeds incident throws a flood of light on the political culture of those who organised, and now defend, the no-platforming, and on the political culture of a left in which such things are not rare.
I have written an open letter to the leaders of the Weekly Worker group (the "CPGB"), who organised the "no-platforming" and in a long series of preposterous articles in their paper have defended it. What follows is part of it. The full text is at http:// www.workersliberty.org.uk/ files/ leeds.rtf.
Principles are important - and indivisible. For us, it is of immense importance that there should be democracy, pluralism, the right to dissent, and the right to offend and outrage the susceptibilities of majorities and their consensus-truths. Without that there can never be a left worth having, and certainly not a united left.
We are concerned with establishing democracy and pluralism because we are concerned with selecting, educating and uniting the real revolutionary Marxist left in one Leninist organisation.
Evidently, it is necessary to spell out the political issues for you as one would - and this is surely the point - with newcomers to the democratic politics you proclaim. I will go through the politically important aspects of it point by point, in the simplest terms, taking nothing for granted.
Why is what happened in Leeds important?
1. Because without free speech, democracy and pluralism - the things trampled on by the "no platforming" in Leeds - the left will be neither healthy nor united.
2. Because the future of the left depends on the creation of a socialist movement in which these things have become the norm.
3. Because it is impossible to have a rational, politically healthy, critically self-assessing and self-correcting socialist movement without free speech, and the consistent defence of free speech.
4. Because no healthy organisation or movement can exist without the right to dissent ( in this case the AWL's right to dissent from the dominant opinion of the pseudo-Leninist sects on the Middle East, and our right to make and express an assessment of that left and its politics on this question, no matter how unpleasant those so characterised may find what we say about them.
5. Because commitment to free speech, as Rosa Luxemburg used to insist, is either commitment to free speech "for the person who disagrees", or it is a vicious hypocrisy. It is only tested when you are faced with opinions which you detest, fear, find provocative, chilling, disturbing, you-indicting, you-discrediting, you-affronting, you-upsetting, you-condemning.
6. Because we live in a political culture still saturated with Stalinist and kitsch-Trotskyist hostility to free speech, democracy and pluralism (and if the truth be told, often to reason itself and to a reason-regulated socialist politics).
7. Because we live in an archipelago of monolithic and quasi-monolithic political groups and groupuscules that, typically, are more religious than rational, more governed by feeling, and often by hysteria, than by reason. The members of these groups are schooled and habituated in submission to authority and unquestionable official truths by the prevailing norms and, where necessary, by heresy hunts. (In this case by the prohibition, which has once or twice been enforced by physical violence against AWL people, on naming as anti-semites those who want to destroy the Jewish nation state, who denounce Jews who support Israel - the overwhelming majority of Jews - as racists, and who have, for example, campaigned to ban Jewish societies on campuses!)
8. Because, without the right of dissent, of free speech, of free inquiry, and of free discussion in the service of reason, it will be impossible to do the work of restoring a living and developing Marxist culture.
9. Because it is inconceivable that the left can unite without free speech, pluralism and reasoned discourse, free from bans and suppressions and from "great men" - and even poor little Mike Marqusees - hurling anathemas that are enforced by sycophants.
10. And finally - to get back to the Leeds affair - because those who understand all this need to practise democracy and not only prattle about it. And because those who are serious about it have an interest in sorting out the honest and consistent advocates of free speech, etc, from the mere chatterers who deal in convenient political patter.
The politics here are clear and plain. Your behaviour in the Leeds affair - that of the "new recruit", Father Ray Gaston, the "National Organiser", Mark Fischer, and the CPGB's certified Sole Maker of Theory, John Bridge/Jack Conrad - and John-Jack's commentaries on it afterwards, flatly contradict everything you claim to stand for in this area. One of two things, therefore.
Either you do not really believe in the democratic principles you proclaim (if you understand them).
Or in the Leeds affair you acted in flat contradiction of your proclaimed principles - possibly because you do not understand them. (In his stupefying defence of what you did, John-Jack pisses on them!).
The Leeds affair reminds me of an episode in our history, 19 years ago, when we were in a common organisation with a group led by Alan Thornett, now a member of the ISG..
Being the inveterate "economists" that we are, we called a conference for trade unionists. It was a sizeable affair, in a period of serious class struggle, involving many shop stewards and industrial militants, filling the large hall at the University of London Union. We were divided on industrial perspectives. Amongst a large platform, Alan Thornett was due to speak for the minority position - in fact, though it was not billed as that - and myself for the majority.
The hall was filling up and we were near starting time, when Alan Thornett spotted a small knot of members of the Spartacist League in the hall and, in a panic, stormed out of the meeting. He said he would refuse to speak unless they were excluded.
Now, Alan is invariably a subjective man, and not infrequently a silly one, but he had an understandable animosity to the Sparts. They had denounced him unjustly and ludicrously as "a scab" because his section of the Cowley car plant in Oxford had not joined a strike in some other section. There was a long-standing and bitter antagonism.
Thornett's walk out, just as the meeting was due to start, faced us with a major dilemma. He represented a third of our organisation, who would back him, whatever he did.
They were a personality cult, a fan club, around Alan more than a political formation. When he said: "it's black!", they would all say "it is black, very black!" Especially those who had, five minutes before, been passionately insisting: "it's white, palpably, astonishingly white!"
There was a great deal of factional tension in our ranks. An immediate split was possible. Our side had spent 18 months trying to avoid a split and it would be another six months before we would give up on them and initiate the unavoidable split. If Thornett had taken his walkout beyond a gesture to bully us into agreeing to ban the Sparts, a sizeable part of the organisation would have gone with him.
A small matter, then, you might think, to bar half a dozen much-despised aggressive sectarians. A small price to avoid disruption.
We did not think so. Important principles were involved. There were massive implications for working class democracy and for the conduct of the affairs of the left in what Alan wanted to do to the people he had good reason to hate. We refused to bar the Sparts.
Now in any political reckoning that conference was at least ten thousand times more important than the parish meeting in Leeds. The empirical case for not risking having it disrupted was proportionately that much greater too. But to surrender the norms of working class democracy for which we stood was, so we decided without any hesitation or agonising over it that I can recall, too high a price to pay. If there was to be disruption, then so be it. We would face it and sort it out.
With the conference ready to start, we convened an emergency meeting of the organisation's Executive and faced down Thornett and his supporters. His nerve failed and he decided to speak after all.
If we had done anything less, it would have amounted to ratting on our own politics in pursuit of a short-term convenience.
Your explanation that what happened in Leeds was just a "cock up" amounts to a plea for understanding and sympathy on the grounds that the leaders of your organisation are prize political idiots!
You can't "plead" that and still expect political people to take you seriously.
You put yourself in the case of the repentant ex-Stalinist McCarthyite witch-hunters of whom Max Shachtman once said that their "pitch" amounted to saying: "We've been absolute idiots during our 20 years as Stalinists, unbelievably stupid, mind-boggled, slow to understand - until now! Now we know it all! Now we can be trusted to understand and explain everything, especially the international communist conspiracy! Now you must listen to us!" You made a "cock-up" - but declare in oracular fashion that to complain about it is nothing more than a "provocation" against the CPGB!
If you were that slow on the uptake and so astonishingly dim about the politics of "Leeds", if you didn't understand the issues raised by the demand on you to no-platform me, how can you ask anyone to have political confidence in you on other matters, most of them far more complicated than "Leeds"?
Yours fraternally, Sean Matgamna
Party and class, economism and democracy
A day of debate organised by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Weekly Worker (CPGB)
Saturday 25 January 12-5pm
University of London Union, Malet Street, London