One of the more endearing, or possibly aggravating, features of the Alliance for War and Liberalism is the spurious air of openness they promote. Way back when they were running the Workers’ Liberty journal, they would actively solicit contributions from people they disagreed with, only for those gullible enough to take the bait to end up submerged under a vast mountain of Matgamnite polemic. (Which made WL perversely readable, although this did not make up for the editor abusing his authority to fill the journal with his own poetry.) Another AWL trick is to invite you to one of their weekend schools, where you can listen to some interesting talks and sink a few pints with some intelligent people, just as long as you don’t mind being called an anti-Semite every ten minutes. At one AWL-sponsored event I managed the hat trick of being called a Stalinist, an anti-Semite and a Chetnik fascist within less than half an hour, an accomplishment of which I’m quite proud, although it maybe explains why I’m in no great hurry to go back.
Anyway, this tradition of pseudo-openness is carried on by the AWL’s practice of providing comments boxes on their website. This doesn’t lead to the visceral comedy of spEak You’re bRanes, but it does provide the odd chuckle nonetheless. I particularly enjoy Jane Ashworth’s occasional sorties there to upbraid her former comrades for not having the courage of their convictions and openly endorsing US-UK imperialism.
Increasingly, the contributions are coming from the Decent Left. This may be because most people on the real left (or the “kitsch left”, as Sean calls it) have long since lost patience with the AWL. But I’m also reminded of Trotsky’s complaint about the late Max Shachtman, that he was far too worried about whether Sidney Hook and Max Eastman had a good opinion of him. Shachtman’s would-be reincarnation, Sean Matgamna, is far too worried about renegades like Nick Cohen and Norman Geras having a good opinion of him. There’s a real kinship there.
So, the latest is a remarkably polite debate, by AWL standards, with Eric Lee, of Democratiya fame. Readers of Decentiya will know Eric’s articles for their Grandpa Simpson “Back in nineteen dickety two!” quality. This may seem patronising, but when you consider the horseshit that Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson fills his little journal with, Eric’s articles do stand out in that they invariably have a reasonable point at their core. It’s just that, to get there, you have to wade through about 100,000 words of dubious relevance on what Congressman Pipesucker had to say in the debate on the Tennessee Valley Authority.
So, here’s Eric:
The most recent issue of Solidarity features a number of articles about the conflict in Gaza. These articles do the AWL no credit.
Ira Berkovic’s “Who speaks for Jewish people in Britain?” reports on the rallies organised by the Jewish community in Britain without once mentioning the politics of those rallies. That’s extraordinary. More than that, it’s dishonest. As even the BBC reported, these rallies called for peace and an end to Hamas terror. They were not the mirror-image of the pro-Hamas rallies which – as you reported elsewhere in Solidarity – did call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
But to be fair, I think the comrades of the AWL may not be deliberately misrepresenting the Jewish community rallies. I think the article actually reveals the depth of your ignorance. You don’t actually know what the rally was about — because you weren’t there.
AWL members were busy getting their signs torn up at pro-Hamas rallies – rallies whose political leaders proclaimed slogans with which you completely disagree. But a rally whose demand was ‘Yes to peace, No to Hamas terror’ was somehow of no interest to you.
I fear Eric is being a little disingenuous here. The “End Hamas Terror” rallies were pro-peace in the sense that the speeches from the platform supported the forcible pacification of Gaza and clearly defended the IDF offensive. That such a stand was publicly taken by the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies will have delighted every genuine anti-Semite in Britain. But Eric has a point, why didn’t the AWL go on a rally where they might have felt more at home than on the Stop the War rally?
Which brings me to Sean Matgamna’s article in the same issue. Sean blasts the Socialist Party for concealing its real views (the two-state solution) for fear of being unpopular, or provoking anger from pro-Hamas demonstrators. The question of political courage runs like a red thread in this article and Sean correctly writes that “the socialist who is afraid to be unpopular who cannot stand against the tide, or even the stream, is a poor little specimen indeed.”
Reading these articles, as well as the extensive coverage of the AWL’s brave efforts to get its message across to pro-Hamas demonstrators in Sheffield and elsewhere, I cannot help but wonder why the AWL doesn’t present that same message to a 15,000 strong rally in London? (And a decent sized one in Manchester as well.)
One would think that with your “third camp” politics, you’d be eager to hold up your placards with their “Down with Hamas, Down with the IDF” not only at pro-Hamas rallies, but even at pro-peace ones organised by the Jewish community?
But you don’t. I wonder why. Could it be that the Socialist Party is not the only group on Britain’s far left with a muddled message, lacking in political courage?
The question is its own answer. The SP’s formal line on Israel/Palestine is not a million miles removed from the formal line of the AWL. But the SP didn’t feel the need to go on antiwar rallies and behave like assholes. They thought it was more important to relate to the marchers. This clearly distinguishes them from the AWL, who go on these rallies precisely to behave like assholes. Indeed, Sean criticised the SP precisely on this point.
But back to Eric. I’m not going to get bogged down in all the tendentious points contained within Eric’s short missive. What is relevant is the shorter Eric: You guys are Zionists, so why don’t you just admit you’re Zionists, stop pissing around with the left and stand with your real comrades? I’m afraid, however, that Eric misses the point. One of the regular features of left meetings on the Middle East is that all the Jewish speakers are critical of Israel and all the AWL speakers call the Jewish speakers anti-Semites. You might ask who they are trying to convince, especially since nearly 25 years of putting out Israeli hasbara hasn’t altered their hideously goyishe membership profile. Nor would one expect it to. Jewish leftists who have gone through a lot to dissociate themselves from Zionism aren’t going to be attracted to a Marxist-Zionist group run by gentiles with a bad case of vicarious Israeli chauvinism. And Zionists generally have better options for political engagement than the AWL. The whole purpose of this aggressive contrarianism, as with the Sparts and the old RCP, is to shake loose one or two people from the orbit of other left groups and into the tender embrace of Uncle Sean.
And, speak of the devil, the Swami himself now responds to Eric:
Living in a political world that is crazedly “anti-Zionist” and anti-Israel, of course we defend Israel’s right to exist, try to explain the Israeli point of view, defend the “Two Nations, Two States” position, fight against the demonisation of Israel and “Zionism”. During the recent war,we reminded people of the Hamas rockets. For that, the Kitsch Left denounces us as “Zionists”, “pro-Imperialists”, and all the rest of it. That I can understand. To the allies of Islamic clerical fascism, people “high” on “anti-Imperialist” delirium and vicarious Arab-Islamic chauvinism, that is what we are. They want Israel wiped off the map. But nobody who bothers to read what we write, as I assume Eric does, can think that of us.
Now, how could anyone have got the idea that the AWL was a Zionist or pro-imperialist organisation? I would have thought that, to anyone familiar with the group’s neo-Hyndmanite positions, it would seem like simple common sense.
In principle AWL supports the right of the Palestinians to fight and drive out the Israeli occupation forces, whatever the politics of those leading the Palestinians at a given moment. That is complicated in practice by the political programme of, in this case, Hamas, which proclaims the goal of destroying Israel, and by the fact that they are allied with other reactionaries in the Arab-Islamic world who proclaim the same programme.
You’ll notice that Sean has just stated a broad, overarching principle, and then gone on to negate it in the very next sentence. Only a truly accomplished dialectician could be so bold.
In fact, on the London demo, we did shout on the loudspeaker “Down with Hamas”, etc. Because of the politics of the audience there, as in Sheffield, it was necessary and permissible to “bend the stick” a bit.
What’s that noise? Ah yes, that would be Tony Cliff spinning in his grave. Besides, and I know this has been pointed out a thousand times, the peace movement in Israel is not saying “Down with Hamas” but rather “Negotiate with Hamas”. One realises that, for British Zionist opinion, the right wing of the Meretz party is the dovish extreme of acceptable opinion, but the AWL doesn’t operate under the same social constraints and so doesn’t have the same excuses.
But in cold and considered expressions of our politics we do not put an equals sign between Israel and the Palestinians, not even because Hamas is politically so very reactionary.
Perhaps it isn’t terribly wise of Sean to draw attention to the often glaring gap between the Jesuitical articles appearing in the AWL press, which are designed to be difficult to raise objections to, and what the group says in the course of its agitation.
The Hamas rockets, etc., justified Israel in inflicting the massive carnage and destruction which it has just inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza? In the existing circumstances that idea can be sustained from one point of view only — that of a steel-clad, asbestos-lined, paranoia-infected Israeli national egotism…
Those who are not reflex Israeli chauvinists will know when not to side with Israel. For myself, I take a friendly attitude to Israeli nationalism, and, in retrospect, to the pre-World War II movement for a Jewish state, believing that of all peoples, post-Holocaust Jews have a right to be nationalist. That is not the same thing as Israeli chauvinism…. Or the same as proclaiming the principle “Israel — right or wrong!”
Thusly does Sean belabour poor old Eric. As it happens, I do think Eric’s position is one of ironclad Israeli chauvinism, but even that doesn’t merit such a massive deployment of sophistry from Sean. Although note that Sean’s support for a post-Holocaust Jewish state is now read back into the pre-1939 period. That’s a bit of a departure, and I assume Borochov will soon be joining Shachtman in the AWL’s eclectic ideological tzimmes.
Well now, this provokes a rather incoherent response from one Ian Sternberg along the lines of “Israel! Yo!” Which has the unfortunate effect of bringing Sean back again:
The fundamental political case against Israel’s Gaza war is that there were better, far better, alternatives open to Israel: really and actively accepting the Two States position, negotiating a broad framework of settlement with the Arab League, something that seems now to be possible, and, within that framework, sorting out Hamas and its rocket war on Israel. Israel’s government chose instead to pulverise Palestinian society in Gaza. Instead, Israel went on a hi-tech Hamas-hunt from the air that could not but produce massive civilian casualties. For that reason alone the Israeli Government should be condemned.
You will notice the similarity and difference between this and Sean’s notorious “Bomb Iran” article. The similarity is that Sean, the great proponent of the Third Camp, starts not from the point of view of the oppressed masses but from the options open to the Israeli political-military leadership. The difference is that Sean actually does manage to work in the c-word. This marks a slight improvement over the Iran article with its “In the name of what alternative would we condemn” formulation – I don’t know, maybe the alternative of not bombing Iran? Ah well, we shouldn’t pass up even a flicker of rationality from this source.
Finally, AWL activist Sacha Ismail chips in. Sacha is a pleasant young chap who affects to believe that the AWL really does want to end the oppression of the Palestinians, which makes him either unbelievably naïve or unbelievably dishonest. I prefer to believe the former.
Clearly I don’t share the far left’s holy terror at the word; but I don’t see how socialists can call themselves Zionists. I am for Israel’s right to exist, but that doesn’t make me (or you) a Zionist, any more than being for Palestinian independence makes us Palestinian nationalists.
We shouldn’t go along with the ‘anti-Zionist’ outcry, but nor should we use language which potentially blurs the opposition to nationalism – as opposed to national rights – that all of us in the AWL agree is essential for international socialists.
You see the problem Sean has with his youth? This kitsch creep must be counteracted, and fast! Over to Sean:
The word “Zionist” is used in the Kitsch-Left as a near equivalent of “racist”. It encapsulates the demonisation of Israel and of Jewish people who support it. It sums up the grotesque, and originally Stalinist, misrepresentation of both the history of Zionism and of the Jews in the Twentieth Century, on which the “absolute anti-Zionists” erect their toxic nonsense. It is a tool of ideological terrorism on the “left”. The cleanest and simplest way of dealing with that is to accept it, in its proper, original, meaning, and wear it as a badge of political sanity.
Ahem. Since Sean likes to rehash the founding of Israel in 1948 at every possible occasion, I know for a fact that he’s aware of the young Israeli state’s receipt of Soviet diplomatic support and, perhaps more to the point, Czechoslovak arms. But perhaps we’re talking about “Stalinism” not in the historical sense but in the specialised sense of “stuff Sean Matgamna disagrees with”. On the racism point, Sean is also well aware of not only the Israeli state’s oppressive record in the occupied territories, but also of the legally enshrined second-class status of non-Jewish citizens of Israel. There is a reason for the latter, and this is why Avigdor Lieberman, boorish bigot that he is, is not exactly out of step with mainstream Zionist thought when he talks about “transfer” or about downgrading non-Jewish citizens to resident aliens.
And this is why, although I profoundly disagree with Eric Lee, I still think he has the better of the debate. Because he’s more honest, you see, and firmly identifies with the tradition of Labour Zionism. Sean Matgamna has been moving steadily away from Trotskyism for more years than I care to remember, but there’s still some sentimental imperative urging him to keep a foot in the far left camp. Really, the cleanest and simplest way of dealing with this contradiction would be to admit openly that the AWL is a rightwing, pro-imperialist sect. Sean might lose a few of his younger and more idealistic cadre, but he may well lose them anyway, and he can rest assured that the core of old codgers who have supported his twists and turns over the decades will continue to do so. Not least my old chum Martin Thomas, as the poor bastard has little to comfort himself with these days except the thought that “Once Tiberius is dead, I, Sejanus, will rule as emperor in Rome.” Always assuming Sean doesn’t find himself a young Caligula to take up the mantle, that is.