It’s fun to stay at the YMCA


You have to love Peter Tatchell. Not only is he a man of immense personal courage, but he may be the most truly Trotskyist man in England. Having achieved just about all of his goals at home, courtesy of the most gay-friendly government in history, Tatch has intuited that you can’t have gay liberation in one country. Hence his recent quixotic trip to Russia in the company of Right Said Fred, who proved to be too sexy for the Kremlin. I eagerly anticipate his next jaunt, when he should be heading out to Zimbabwe with the Village People in tow.

I know lots of people find Tatch deeply annoying, but he knows that and is prepared for it. In fact, annoying people is an integral part of his MO. Now, compare and contrast one of my favourite British left sects, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (S. Matgamna prop.). The Soggy Oggies have a rather eccentric semi-Zionist position on the Middle East, and the less than charming habit of branding anyone who disagrees with it anti-Semitic. Some people have guessed that this is overcompensating for their extremely goyishe membership profile, but I don’t believe that – after all, they have at least one Irish member and still don’t have a decent position on Ireland. My point is that the anti-Semitism gambit is one the AWL can get away with in certain circumstances – talking to their own supporters, or Zionist activists, or in student debating societies. But I’ve been struck, on the odd occasions when I’ve been to Marxism in London, by AWLers turning up at an SWP conference where they buttonhole SWP members and call them anti-Semites, and being genuinely surprised when they get a hostile reception. I’m more surprised they don’t get lamped.

This is a roundabout way of considering the question of Marxism and religion. Actually, most Marxists have a pre-Marxist, mechanical materialist view of religion, but we’ll pass that by. What interests me is that, as people who don’t take religion seriously, they tend to forget that religious people do take religion seriously. The fond belief that you can attack a religion without offending the people who adhere to it comes under this heading.

Peter Tatchell understands this perfectly well. Tatch has got quite a bit of stick lately for having a bee in his bonnet about Muslims, but that’s understandable – Tatch believes that conservative Muslims don’t much like gays, and he isn’t wrong. By way of contrast, let us take the Socialist Workers Party, who for the last several years have been frenetically trying to build alliances with, well, conservative Muslims.

This requires quite a bit of hypocrisy for an organisation that is formally extremely PC on issues like gay rights. Fortunately, hypocrisy isn’t a problem for an outfit whose middle-class cadre combine a swinging bohemian lifestyle in private with a po-faced puritanical stance in public. It isn’t the case that SWP members – with the possible exception of some particularly young and dopey recruits – regard Islam as a special progressive religion. On the contrary, most SWP members believe in private that Islam is a basically reactionary force – it’s worth going back to the SW archives and looking at what they said on the original Rushdie affair.

There are some rhetorical devices that can be used for getting around this, mostly justified, in a way the late Monty Johnstone would have recognised, by a ruthlessly pragmatic resort to “tactics”. One is to simply shut up about the issue, and they’ve done some of that. For example, the abuse of children in after-school madrassas – a standing scandal in British Muslim communities – is unlikely to be taken up by those leftists whose strategy is to orient on the mosques. Another is to switch targets, which might mean abstract attacks on “religion” in general; or another religion, which is why the Irish edition of SW regularly attacks Catholicism with a gay abandon you wouldn’t expect from the people who jumped up and down outside the French Embassy in support of hijab. This, of course, assumes the Muslims aren’t bright enough to see through a rhetorical subterfuge. And also that an alliance based on deceit is one that’s going to last.

Personally, I prefer the Tatchell method. He gets up plenty of noses, including mine from time to time, but he has the benefit of being honest.

Rud eile: While on the subject of religion, I’m glad to see that this month’s Hibernian is in cracking form. We have a beginner’s guide to GK Chesterton; a trenchant defence of the Latin Mass; quite a long article on porn; a sideswipe at the Orange Order; and a lurid description of the torments that await us sinners in the next world. Yikes!


  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 6, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Yeah, I’ve always had a fairly high regard for Tatchell. Outrage annoyed me in the early 1990s, but I think his approach has become vastly more sophisticated since then, and his personal bravery in putting himself into situations where he is consistently physically attacked by genuine reactionaries is quite a contrast to the supine mob you namecheck further in the piece.

    One entertaining rationale provided by the SWP for their interesting approach to conservative Islam (well okay, Islam full stop) is via Lenin’s Tomb which had an article about how the Muslim parts of the Soviet Union were treated in the pre-Stalinist days.

    Now, perhaps it is all true what they say, but as you note the different approach of the Irish SWP to Catholicism (particularly note one E McCanns pieces in Hot Press) is a little hard to stomach, even for this agnostic.

  2. charliemarks said,

    July 6, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    As a lapsed Catholic, I feel I should stand up for my former religion. But I can’t in all honesty. I don’t believe the tenets, cannot defend the institutions — but I will say that it gives people comfort, that most Catholics are not homophobic or judgemental, despite the teachings of the Church.

    Now, the question of religion is not just about reactionary attitudes towards LGBT people, women, etc. There’s the matter of creationism, the separation of church and state, and so on.

    But my overriding consideration is the attitude of religious people and religious figures to the class struggle.

    Of the people who support the anti-colonial struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine we are likely to see a preponderance of Muslims. Coupled with the fact that most people who are Muslims in the UK are immigrants from ex-colonies of the British Empire, we can see a higher level of awareness about imperialism, though opposition is often expressed in overtly religious terms.

    The mistakes the SWP leadership has made with their Respect project and their participation in the Stop the War Coalition is to practice bureaucratic centralism — dread phrase — and sacrifice ideals for unity. This is a reflection of the lack of internal democracy and open debate within the SWP itself, I’d wager, though I do not wish to be sectarian or belittle to achievements of the party and its members.

  3. ejh said,

    July 6, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    Yeah, but ex-Catholics are always particularly hostile to Catholcism, it’s what Catholicism is all about. I am, that’s for sure.

    This might not be entirely reasonable or proportionate but there’s not really much mileage in attacking McCann on the basis “why don’t you say that about the Muslims?”. There’s good reasons why not which tend to involve the invocation of context. (I like McCann’s old collection of articles on the Church very much, by the way.)

    Incidentally, talking of unannounced child abuse scandals, apparently one of the great mysteries of Spoanish politics is the absence of scandals of the sort familiar in the Irish Church. Now it might be that nothing of the sort has happened here, but given (a) that for forty years the Church could do as they pleased and (b) there’s no more cleric-ridden country in the world (60% of all Catholic monasteries and convents are apparently here) then I don’t really believe it.

    I agree with you about Tatchell, by the way. I don’t like his habit of laying into other socialists with his bizarre chums in the AWL, but his personal courage and principle trumps everything. Hurrah for him.

  4. chris y said,

    July 7, 2007 at 9:57 am

    how the Muslim parts of the Soviet Union were treated in the pre-Stalinist days.

    Can’t bring myself to read it, but does he refer to Lenin’s suggestion to militants in those parts to take the line: “It may be true that God is great, but the Executive Committee of the Communist International is more immediately influential”?

    If so, does he spot the significant difference between then and now?

  5. Ciarán said,

    July 7, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    ejh: Yeah, but ex-Catholics are always particularly hostile to Catholcism, it’s what Catholicism is all about. I am, that’s for sure.

    It’s always a real eye-opener for me when someone accuses me of being sectarian because I’m a republican, and then I realise just how anti-catholic I am.

    It’s actually more likely a case of anti-clericalism than anything else, and of course come Novena time in West Belfast you’d be hard pressed to find anyone but the most devout catholic not cursing the religion, doubly so if they drive.

    The question of Marxism and religion will probably go on for some time to come. While the historical materialism of Marxism undoubtedly writes off supernatural involvement in human development, there’s nothing there that necessarily contradicts religion. Then of course there’s the case of Liberation Theology in Latin America, and to a smaller degree in the Basque Country and Ireland too. On another note, Máirtín Ó Cadhain was once asked how he reconciled his Marxism with his Christianity, and he stated that he thanked God that Karl Marx was born.

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