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The Alliance for Workers Liberty: Nice But Wrong

Guest Post by “Mikey”, who has been engaging in his favourite pastime…

For many years, I have entertained myself by meeting up with extremists. Some of these extremists I like more than others and of all the extremists I meet, the ones I like the most are the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL). On and off, for over twenty years, I have been attending some of their meetings and unlike some of the other extremist meetings I have attended and will be attending, I have never really felt threatened by the AWL.

Indeed, I will go so far as to praise the AWL for the stance that it has taken on left-wing antisemitism.

Despite this praise, the AWL still have a fundamental problem – they are Marxists and as a result of being Marxist, their minds are cluttered with a discredited ideology. On a number of occasions I have suggested to one leading member that the AWL would be taken a lot more seriously if they drop all their talk about Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and the Revolution and just become a think tank. After all, the Revolutionary Communist Party managed to do it. One of its former leading members, Mick Hume, despite the very strange views he held on the atrocities that occurred in the concentration camps of Bosnia even has a column in The Times. This idea has been firmly rebuffed. As I have been fairly told, if you take Marx and the revolution away from the AWL then you would take away its heart and soul. Marxism is central to the organisation and without it, they are nothing.

I have also made a further suggestion that has been rejected. – the suggestion that in the age of the Internet they no longer need a newspaper and they can close it down as everything they write can be published on the Internet anyway. For such a small organisation as the AWL the cost of production cannot possibly be commercially justifiable. Reasons for rejection have included that it is not about commercial matters. This lack of commercial consideration, typical of Marxists, may partly explain why Marxist countries such as North Korea are typically a lot poorer than capitalist countries such as South Korea. A different reason given has been that poor working class people do not have access to the Internet. The fact that this is inaccurate as even if they do not have access to the Internet in their homes, they can access it in a public library combined with the commercial fact that it is likely to be cheaper to print off the web pages and give them out free to their readers who might genuinely not have access to the Internet at home and may be immobile and cannot travel to a local library or Internet café, have also been rejected. Their final defense of continuing the paper has been the discipline in installs in party members to be forced to go out and sell the paper and recruit new members. This ignores the obvious point that a former member has given me – having to sell newspapers outside Safeways on a cold and wet Saturday morning probably leads to more members leaving than they ever recruit via this method. Over the last 20 years I have seen lots of new faces at AWL meetings, but I have not really seen any more faces. Despite what Trotsky may or may not have said, it does not seem that the strategy of selling newspapers to build the workers’ party has got the AWL very far.

The leading theorist and founder of the organisation, Sean Matgamna a.k.a. John O’Mahony has not been afraid of debate. In the past, together with another leading member, Martin Thomas, he has debated such people as Roger Scruton, Kenneth Minogue and < a href => David Marsland. Last weekend the AWL had its summer school, pretentiously titled Ideas for Freedom.. The fact that countries that refer to themselves as Marxist tend to include some of the least free and most brutal regimes in the world is lost on them.

Nevertheless this weekend Matgamna took on Nick Cohen. The subject title was “Does socialism have a future?” but in practice they were debating ideas that have come out of Cohen’s highly regarded and well reviewed book , What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way. The AWL have previously reviewed this book and have not given it such a high rating as some of the others. Stan Crooke who carried out the review stated “‘What’s Left?’ is essentially about the Iraq war. It’s about how Cohen was right to support it, and how his left-wing opponents were wrong, in various ways.” Personally, I think Crooke is wrong and what the book is actually about can better be summed up by paraphrasing the point that Cohen made when he was interviewed by Anthony Julius earlier this year: The problem with the left, or at least parts of it, is that if a bomb went off on a London tube train tomorrow, there will be those that will blame George Bush and Tony Blair. Despite my disagreement with him, Crooke had at least read the book and so had Matgamna which is more than I can say for many of the people in the room.

It is relatively standard in Marxist organisations that when they have a speaker or a debate on a subject, the main people speak from the podium, the chair takes a number of contributions from the floor and finally those on the podium get to sum up. In this regard AWL is no different to many others. For those not familiar with Marxist debates, it is important to realize that the contributions from the floor can be precisely that – contributions – and in this example they could be up to three minutes each. These contributions are more likely than not statements of opinion as opposed to questions to the panel. Members of the organisations are often encouraged to make these contributions. Hopefully, if they are noted by the organisational hierarchy for making valid and useful points, their position and respect within the organisation is elevated.

It was the contributions from the floor that left me shocked. There were people standing up and quoting standard Marxist babble. Marx and Lenin were quoted as if they were God like. Daniel Jennings has summed the reason for this behaviour up well:

Communism was and is a religion. Like all religions, Communism is irrational, dogmatic and based on faith rather than science. Just like Christianity and Islam, Communism had its Holy Books which were treated as Holy Scripture, namely the writings of Lenin, Mao, Marx and others–all of which were far from scientific.

The AWL has some very intelligent members. Outside the sessions I found myself speaking with one relatively young member, clever enough to have been accepted by Cambridge University, about differing opinions across the political spectrum on pornography. She appeared not only well informed but also eloquent. Another member who I spoke to was studying for a PhD on American Trotskyism. I was slightly shocked by the fact that he admitted that he had not actually read one of the most important pieces by Marx, Das Kapital, but nevertheless he was clearly a highly intelligent individual. Intelligence is certainly useful in a Marxist organization as dedicated Marxists have to immerse themselves in a substantial amount of reading and studying. As an example, for those members attending the week long AWL summer school the preliminary reading list includes works by Lenin, Draper, Shachtman, Plekhanov, Trotsky and the list goes on. Not only do attendees have to read this material but they also have to write about it. They are set a number of specific tasks. An example is as follows:

Martynov wrote: “By propaganda we would understand the revolutionary explanation of the present social system, entire or in its partial manifestations, whether that be done in a form intelligible to individuals or to broad masses. By agitation, in the strict sense of the word, we would understand the call upon the masses to undertake definite, concrete actions …”. What’s wrong with those definitions?

The attendees of the summer school are expected to write 200 words on the above and be able to “brainstorm” the matter at a session entitled “Marxism and Economism.”. This is just one of a number of tasks that attendees of the summer school are expected to carry out.

Given all this, I was completely bemused by the reaction that individual members of AWL showed to Nick Cohen when I asked them about what they thought of his book. Whilst I only asked a few members, none had read Cohen’s book and not one of them mentioned their own comrade Crooke’s review of the book. This mere detail did not stop any of them from being very confident in their claim that Cohen was wrong and even if he had made some valid points his reasoning was wrong. Asking for more clarity, two of the people I asked denounced him for not being a socialist (according to their own definition) and for mixing with rich friends – something that Cohen had admitted in his speech. Any sensible person should surely realise that having rich friends should not disqualify someone from holding a valid opinion. Their reaction was so farcical and ill informed that I could not be bothered to mention to them that the house Friedrich Engel’s live in London was not exactly the sort of house one would expect the working classes to be living in.

In my opinion the attendees of the AWL summer school would be better off reading Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? and Prospect magazine (which they denounced me for carrying) than Plekhanov’s Anarchism and Socialism and Hal Draper’s Why the working class? , both of which are part of their preliminary required reading.

In conclusion, despite my criticisms, I have lingering fondness for the AWL. As I left their event, I found myself shaking my head and thinking to myself that it does not make sense; Sean Matgamna is too clever and too nice to be a Leninist.