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AWL, Imperialism and Lies

Tony Greenstein

BACK IN the summer of 2005, Bob Pitt suggested that I write an article for What Next? on the AWL and imperialism. As this is a subject that I have some acquaintance with, naturally I agreed. It would have been churlish to refuse. Not surprisingly it has produced howls of outrage as well as an abusive and dishonest article (‘Lies, Damned Lies and Tony Greenstein’) from AWL’s Sacha Ismail and Daniel Randall.

Now, I guess that one method of dealing with your opponents is to simply call them liars. It is certainly easier than having to refute their arguments. However it is a pity that Messrs Randall and Ismail can’t foresake their youthful infatuation with the debating style of the WRP and Stalinism and try and deal with the substance of what I wrote.

I don’t criticise AWL for being a tiny organisation of 100 members, after a mere 30 years in existence. After all you have to start somewhere. But it is a bit rich to accuse me of being a sect of one when Ismail/Randall refer later to my membership of the Alliance for Green Socialism, which is three times as large as AWL!

Yes I am based in Brighton and yes, I occasionally post to e-lists. No I don’t post for hours every day, as being Secretary of Brighton Unemployed Centre, Assistant Secretary of the Trades Council, Welfare Officer for the largest (UNISON) trade union branch in East Sussex, as well as writing, preparing legal briefs etc, in addition to caring for an autistic child, does not allow me this luxury. I even have time to do things like attend the largest picket for years of a detention centre (Harmondsworth/Colnbrook) last month and the Stop the War March in London. AWL were conspicuous by their absence from both events.

Randall and Ismail complain about the lack of substantiation concerning the Social Democratic Federation. I am surprised that they even question the pro-imperialist politics of the SDF, as this was a major issue of contention within the British Socialist Party that Hyndman formed in 1911 (and he went on to form the National Socialist Party!). If they are that interested they could read, e.g. Hyndman’s The Transvaal War and the Degradation of England (1899). The only point I was making was that racist and imperialist currents like AWL are not new in the labour movement.

You can of course be an imperialist without being a nation! Likewise there are many individuals one would associate with being representatives of imperialism and imperialists themselves e.g. Balfour, Lloyd George, Curzon etc. Similarly, organisations can be imperialist if the politics of imperialism infuse their body politic. AWL has set up its stall as an organisation supportive of Zionism in the Middle East and hostile to Irish Republicanism. That makes AWL part of the imperialist consensus, but if Randall and Ismail wish to nail their colours to the mast of pro-imperialism rather than imperialism I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Likewise Randall/Ismail believe it is a "baseless assertion without substantiation" to say that AWL attacked Sinn Féin from the right. But how else would you characterise their continuous attacks on Irish Republicans for the use of physical force, for supporting a unitary as opposed to a federal Ireland in which Britain would retain a presence via the Loyalists, their characterisation of Republicanism as Catholic, their understanding of Loyalist "fears" or their total failure to give any support to the Irish struggle for independence.

But maybe I should explain something here. I was asked to write an article, of a general nature, concerning AWL’s politics of imperialism. If Randall/Ismail disagree with this then I’m sure they will have copious references to hand to refute what I am saying. Even better, being members of such a distinguished British sect, the two comrades would surely do their best to ensure that AWL materials from the inception of Workers’ Fight and the Trotskyist Tendency were digitised and put on the internet so that all socialists could have easy reference to them. Unless of course they wish to hide a part of their history? My article was therefore based on my recollections of their political positions as I encountered them over the years. If they disgree with my recollection, then fine – to use their own words, substantiate these disagreements, rather than resort to infantile abuse and the sexual imagery of an overexcited fifth-form student. I have plenty of things to research, and spending hours poring over the AWL’s previous contortions is not a priority. So yes, I clearly remember Sean Matgamna floating the idea of repartitioning Ireland and removing the Catholic counties of Fermanagh and South Tyrone from the Ulster statelet. Do they deny this?

But Randall/Ismail are not beyond practising what they warn others about. Apparently I am guilty of accusing the AWL of seeing anti-Arab discrimination by the Israeli state as "a good thing in itself". The only problem is that I did not say this, although I agree it is certainly the logical outcome of their politics. What I said was that AWL "don’t support a Two States position because it is the only thing that is attainable. They see the existence of the Israeli State, a State of its Jewish citizens, for whom its Arab citizens are at best a tolerated minority, as a good thing in its own right". In case Randall/Ismail are still bemused, it is the existence of the racist State of Israel that they see as a good thing in its own right (not "in itself") rather than its Apartheid policies, although I agree that the one follows on logically from the other!

It is likewise a matter of record that the AWL have become one of the main supporters, alongside people like Nick Cohen, of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, whose Iraqi Communist Party leadership participated in the first US puppet administrations. What is their beef about this? Is it not true?

Ismail/Randall ask which Zionist fundamentalist groups am I talking about. Well, the Union of Jewish Students, an organisation funded by the Israeli State which uses all the tricks of CIA student groups on British campuses, smearing their opponents with the charge of anti-Semitism whenever it has the chance.

Why should MAB have been replaced as co-sponsors of the Stop the War Coalition? Opposition to the war is a single issue campaign. MAB represent many British Muslims and regardless of whether they are socialists they have the right, alongside other petit-bourgeois forces, to participate.

Clearly, in orienting at least in part to Respect, which has a left-wing programme of opposition to privatisation, cuts etc, it represents a move leftwards. The nature of the Respect organisation is, of course, another matter, but MAB’s roots matter less than where they are going. But I would take Ismail/Randall’s protestations just a little more seriously if they had ever raised with their Zionist friends in UJS such matters as land discrimination against Israeli Arabs (93% of Israeli land being reserved solely for Jewish use), the systematic refusal of the Israeli state to finance even the most basic social facilities like sewerage for Israeli Arab villages, its demolition of "unrecognised" Arab villages inside Israel etc, its refusal to allow Israeli Arabs to live in Israel if they marry Palestinians from the occupied territories. Instead AWL repeat the mantra about the necessity for a Jewish State to exist.

I’m well aware that opposition to imperialist intervention in the Balkans is considered by AWL to be "empty anti-NATO rhetoric". For some of us, though, US imperialism and British complicity is the main issue in international politics. Ismail/Randall protest that they are not anti-Islamic and give us some examples such as the Kosova war which they supported. But I’m surprised that the comrades forget an even better example of their politics. After all, when the USA began supporting the Mujahideen’s war against the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, there were no more loyal supporters of the Islamic resistance than the AWL!! Clearly their hostility to Muslims takes second place to support for western imperialism. And if they deny this was their position, then put those issues of Solidarity/Socialist Organiser on the web and we can all judge for ourselves!

Randall/Ismail ask, rhetorically, if they were lying when Solidarity said "End the occupation" and "No US/UK occupation". Perish the thought that I would accuse the good comrades of lying. No, it was more a question of trying to face both ways at the same time. After all, if AWL do indeed oppose the occupation of Iraq and want to end that occupation as soon as possible, then what is preventing them from adopting a clear political position and calling for Troops Out Now?

The best example of the AWL’s dishonest political method, was the general meeting of the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform of 29 January 2005. Daniel Randall, who was there in person, may recall that I moved a motion which stated that: "The SADP calls for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British, and all other imperialist, troops from Iraq."

Did the AWL support this? No, they moved their own amendment (for which only they voted!) which proposed deleting the above and substituting: "The SADP states its opposition to the occupation of Iraq and its support for Iraqi self-determination. The SADP seeks to build practical solidarity with all working-class forces struggling to end the occupation. Calls for troops out should be consequential to an overall orientation towards working-class solidarity."

So troops out of Iraq should be "consequential to an overall orientation towards working-class solidarity". Maybe Ismail/Randall can tell us whether that "overall orientation" has now been achieved and whether they are now prepared to explicitly join calls for the withdrawal of imperialist troops? It’s not much wonder that AWL have played no part in building an anti-war movement in this country.

The reason for this balancing act is, as AWL guru Sean Matgamna explained in a debate with Alan Johnson in December 2004, ‘Why we do not support the USA in Iraq’, that the imperialist occupation of Iraq opened up the possibility of a bourgeois democracy:

"Do the US ‘intend’ to ‘create a democratic society in Iraq’? I think they do. But, in the first place, with their methods, it is not unlikely that they will not. In the second place, we must keep in mind that their ‘bourgeois democracy’ includes not only political liberties and space for a labour movement to develop, but mass privatisation and free-marketeering. In the third place, even if they do finally engineer a ‘bourgeois-democratic’, US-friendly regime, it may be a large distance from anything we, the Iraqi labour movement, or even the ‘best intentions’ of the Americans would want.

"They [the USA] are now laboriously trying to reconstruct an Iraqi state. It is impossible to say now what compromises with sectarian forces they will feel obliged to make in this.... Who in their political senses can feel sure that they will not impose constrictions on democracy, including on the rights most essential to the growth of a mass legal labour movement?...

"If there ever was a case for revolutionary socialists positively to support NATO, the USA, and Britain, it was during the 1999 Kosova war. NATO bombed Serbia to force the Serbian army to leave Kosova, where it had started an attempt at full-scale ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the entire Albanian population, over 90% of Kosova’s people. We did not back NATO, but after an initial bit of fumbling we said nothing to line us up with Milosevic, and we argued against the ‘reactionary anti-imperialist’ left.... AWL thinks that the setting-up of a bourgeois-democratic system is the best immediate possibility from the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime and the US-British invasion."

Not only does Matgamna confirm that the AWL refused to oppose the NATO invasion of Kosova and the bombing of Serbia, unlike the "reactionary ‘anti-imperialist’ left", but he also reveals the utter political stupidity of the group that Ismail/Randal belong to. Any fool could tell you that what the US is about in Iraq and Iran has everything to do with oil and nothing to do with democracy. The first act of the US was to shoot some 20 demonstrators dead in Falluja. No doubt the death squads (the El Salvador option), the torture chambers, the open alliance with the Badr brigades etc are all part of the bourgeois democracy that our two AWL "socialists" subscribe to.

As regards the boycott of Israeli universities, Randall/Ismail argue that their position was taken "because we have a general position against all boycotts, believing that positive acts of solidarity are more effective". If that was true then that would be fair enough, but of course that was anything but true. No doubt AWL/SO opposed the boycott of South Africa too, and for much the same reason as Margaret Thatcher, viz. that "boycotts often harm most the people who are your potential allies (in this case the Israeli left and workers’ movement)". Note the lack of any mention of the Palestinian trade unions and workers, the oppressed of the oppressed, who are the very ones who call for boycott because they are in any case starving and who are also excluded from the Israeli "workers’ movement".

But I don’t recall AWL/SO rushing round the country organising meetings of opponents of the boycott of South Africa, campaigning against it. That is what they did when the AUT voted to boycott Israeli universities. They organised meetings with Engage, a group of ex-left academics who were faced with having to actually do something positive in respect of support for the Palestinians for the first time in their lives. At the NATFHE conference I attended one of only two speakers opposed to the boycott was Mark Osborne, who spoke passionately about how people who support a boycott were anti-Semitic before being shouted down by the rest of the meeting.

I respect those socialists who opposed the boycott, not because they are Zionist supporters, but because it doesn’t fit in with their overall class orientation. That was the case with the Socialist Party, but the SP didn’t strain every muscle in their body to undermine the solidarity actions of others. The AWL consciously organised with the supporters of the oppression of the Palestinians, all in the name of "academic freedom". And they organised with some very rum people indeed, including many rightists who believed that the AUT should never take up political positions of international solidarity.

No, I don’t think AWL are lying when they called Jane Ashworth and Alan Johnson ex-Marxist Blairites. But there is no contradiction in being sore when people leave you and take your politics to places you’d like to go but can’t. AWL can’t bring themselves to openly support the occupation of Iraq, and instead confine themselves to debating whether it will bring peace, freedom and bourgeois democracy there. Johnson and Ashworth have no such scruples and of course this means the AWL polemicise with them. It’s often the case that there is a much greater intensity of feeling when the dispute is within the family!

I’m not aware that the Alliance for Green Socialism, which certainly does have illusions in the United Nations, supports the introduction of UN troops in Iraq. Maybe our intrepid comrades would like to produce the proof?

Of course AWL supported Roger Godsiff. But did that mean that AWL supporter Jim Denham had to pound the streets campaigning for him? Whatever else one can say about Salma Yaqoob, she at least is not a supporter of Blair’s racist immigration and asylum laws. If AWL’s politics means that it automatically supports New Labour against any left challenge, and Salma Yaqoob is clearly to his left, then that merely confirms everything else I’ve written about the AWL.

Whatever the faults and failings of George Galloway, he at least was a consistent opponent of the war in Iraq. Charles Kennedy and Kenneth Clarke initially opposed the invasion but then supported "our boys" once they got there. Galloway did no such thing.

Randall/Ismail say I haven’t gone into "any sort of detail" as to what the collaboration between the UJS and AWL was. Well they’ve provided some themselves, because as they say they have had UJS at their various events speaking about anti-Semitism. My own recollection is that their leading members caucused, lobbied together and AWL/SO consistently refused to take up the question of UJS bans on anti-Zionists. After all, AWL also called us "anti-Semitic" so they shared a lot in common with UJS. UJS, of course, sought to ban opponents of Zionism but equally it always fought against No Platform for Fascists and Racists because, being racists, they feared it might be used against them!!

And of course there’s nothing wrong with changing one’s position, but everything wrong if you abandon a position of support for the colonial oppressed peoples for support for one’s own ruling class and its military, as they admit over Kosova, which was not about ethnic cleansing and everything to do with bringing Serbia within the free market system. It is equally true today over Iraq where the AWL refuse to call for troops out of Iraq.

It is an oft-remarked feature of the political and social inadequate, that they condemn the ‘sin’ in others that they are most guilty of themselves. And so, quite ludicrously, Randall/Ismail cry "liar" at the top of their voices, mangling Mark Twain in the process! What is saddest of all is how transparent their behaviour. Were not the most vicious anti-Semites in the Nazi Party the Brownshirts (SA), that nest of Nazi homosexuals – repressed to a man? And he who was described as "the real engineer" (Reitlinger) of the Final Solution, in charge of the Security Police and later Gauleiter of Czechoslovakia, Reinhardt Heydrich, was in fact a "Mischlinge" a half-Jew himself. Indeed a Mischlinge of the first degree. And it is well known that gay-bashers have often sought to hide their own sexuality by indulging in attacks on others who are also gay.

Quite remarkably therefore for those who scream "liar" at the drop of a hat, Randall/Ismail have produced a whopper. AWL "actively opposed him [Tony Greenstein] when he campaigned to have Jewish Societies banned on campuses".

Now it its true UJS have alleged that I supported banning Jewish societies. The outrageous lie is part of their method of destabilisation. But AWL proclaim that they are a socialist organisation. Whose word do they take? That of a fellow socialist or that of apologists for the Zionist state?

Well it’s a no-brainer, because Randall/Ismail not merely chose to believe UJS but in the process prove my case for me – that AWL and UJS are two peas in a pod. And then AWL complain that I didn’t support them in the General Election! In fact, far from supporting the banning of UJS societies UJS has consistently tried to ban Jewish anti-Zionists such as myself or Roland Rance. We are "self-haters" (the old Nazi term) etc.

In a debate with Martin Thomas, the founder and mainstay of the AWL/Socialist Organiser, the latter sent me an e-mail on 26 May 2005 in respect of the AUT boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities in Israel. He asked me: "So what do you mean? That you are for a blanket boycott of all Israeli institutions? And all ‘Zionists’? (If I remember right, you opposed the banning of student Jewish societies in the 1980s. Were you ‘scabbing on the Palestinians’ then? I don't think so.)"

In the course of making a polemical point about the Boycott, namely a false equation between Boycott and Banning, Martin Thomas conceded that "if I remember right, you opposed the banning of student Jewish societies in the 1980s". He did remember right, except that I also opposed them in the 1970s!! There isn’t a scrap of evidence, nothing, to suggest I have ever supported banning a Zionist/UJS society. Quite the contrary. When such an allegation was made regarding a speech I gave to students at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I wrote in a letter to the Jewish Chronicle of 21 November 1986 that:

"I wish to make it clear that I unequivocally support, and always have done, the right of Jewish/Zionist societies to put forward their position on the Palestine/Zionism question. If there is any attempt to ban a Jewish Society at SOAS, I would be perfectly willing to speak against this at a union meeting. Providing, of course, the Union of Jewish Students don’t seek to ban me!"

One week later, in another letter to the JC, I detailed the attempt of the same UJS to prevent me speaking at Thames Polytechnic. And two weeks earlier, Beaver (10 November 1986), paper of the student union of the London School of Economics, led with an article ‘UJS Fail to Prevent Speaker on Zionism’, namely myself.

On the letters page, the LSE Labour Club Executive issued a statement saying that they had been approached by UJS to support a ban on me. Instead of just agreeing, they investigated the allegations made and found them wanting and therefore produced a leaflet, which I still have, outlining the various allegations. This was not enough for UJS, several members of which approached a Labour Club member who had left my meeting early and "proceeded to insult him publicly, calling him a racist, anti-Semitic fascist. He was deeply distressed and grossly insulted as he has been involved in anti-fascist groups for nearly 10 years". The letter concluded: "We utterly condemn this slanderous public intimidation of members of our club."

This behaviour took place up and down the country. Not only against me but fellow anti-Zionist Jews like Roland Rance. I wrote a number of letters to leading student organisers in Socialist Organiser/AWL to ask them to take this up. They never even replied. Instead we now have Randall/Ismail peddling the same falsehoods as the racists liars of UJS.

If Ismail/Randall want proof of their links and closeness to UJS, their deliberate retailing of the lie that I supported the banning of Zionist/UJS societies is that proof. And being stupid liars they probably didn’t even realise that this allegation has been copiously documented! (See press cuttings.)

I note that Randall/Ismail finish their tirade with a quotation from Mark Twain in support of their "liar, liar, pants on fire" routine. Clearly they are also acquainted with another of Mark Twain’s sayings: "Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economise it." Unfortunately they have been so economic that there was nothing left of it in their article.