Why Does the Socialist Party Boycott Its Own Politics? Gaza, and "Socialism" as Evasion and Placebo

SP leaflet


Sean Matgamna

Click here to download as pdf.

Among those who criticise AWL for openly proclaiming our policy on the Middle East — Israel out of the Occupied Territories; two states, i.e. a Palestinian state alongside Israel; hostility to political Islam and Islamic clerical fascism — on the Gaza demonstrations have been members of the Socialist Party.

This is of interest because the Socialist Party agrees with Israel’s right to exist, or used to anyway; and because the SP’s own behaviour on the Gaza demonstrations offers an object lesson in how socialists should not behave.

On both the 3 January and the 10 January marches SP members gave out the same leaflet — a printed broadsheet distributed at demonstrations all over Britain.

For muddled thinking, moral and political cowardice, irresponsible demagogy, and attempted mimicry of the dominant political forces on the demonstrations, with whom, privately, they disagree, it would be hard to find anything worse.

I will first describe it (it is on the AWL website) and then analyse its politics.

One side of the A4 leaflet is given over to slogans and a picture of a Palestinian carrying a boy, limp and bloody, in his arms. The main slogan, covering half the page, is “Stop The Slaughter in Gaza”.

Below that, printed in gold letters, much smaller but still very large type, is: “Mass struggle needed for liberation”. Under that again, in smaller but bold type, are five slogans:

• Stop the military onslaught now! End the blockade and occupation

• Escalate the anti-war demonstrations and initiate workers’ actions

• No trust in the world’s capitalist governments or the United Nations

• For independent workers’ organisations in Israel and Palestine

• For a struggle for democratic socialism throughout the Middle East

This is the “face” of the SP. The other side of the broadsheet is a rumination on the politics stated in the slogans.

The main slogan — “Stop The Slaughter in Gaza” — is a commendable humanitarian protest against Israel’s onslaught. It doesn’t go very far; it is scarcely political; it subsumes Hamas, including its military wing, into the people of Gaza – but it is all right, as far as it goes.

But what about Hamas’s rocket war on Israel? It is a very great deal less lethal than the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, but not because Hamas wouldn’t like it to be as lethal and more so. A central political fact during the war was that Hamas continued to explode rockets in Israel, aimed at civilians: if Hamas had stopped doing that and declared an end to such rockets, it would at least have increased the moral and political pressure on Israel to “stop the slaughter” and the “onslaught”.

The leaflet contains implicit criticism of Hamas dressed up as tactical advice to it – the rockets have been ineffective — but nowhere is there any explicit political condemnation of Hamas’s rockets against Israeli civilians, or of Hamas’s politics that underly its militarism against a state whose right to exist it denies.

As a whole, the political message is an uncritical siding with Hamas. The second main slogan — “mass struggle needed for liberation” — is advice to Hamas, and the demonstrators, on how to achieve their objectives, which the leaflet seemingly accepts. This strange “socialist” leaflet is couched as advice from “socialist” friends — to clerical-fascists!

There are two striking things about the “mass struggle” slogan. The first is the use of “liberation”. Straightforwardly, this would mean liberation of the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, a main political feature of the Gaza demonstrations — and of all the “anti-war” demonstrations for the last seven years — has been the use of the term “liberation of Palestine”, or “free Palestine”, to blur and hide a massive political divide.

The most politicised element, the organisers, and the main placard-providers of the Gaza demonstrations — understand by “free Palestine” the “liberation” (Arab or Islamic conquest) of all of pre-1948 Palestine, including Israel. Islamist groups and the kitsch-left (SWP, ISG, etc.) chanted it: “From the river to the sea/ Palestine will be free”.

Interpret it as you like, and “explain it away” as you will, the slogan “mass struggle for liberation” was, and certainly would be taken as being, endorsement of Arab-chauvinist, Islamic-chauvinist, Islamist, or Hamas objectives in the Middle East, specifically in relation to Israel. It allowed the SP to blend in on the demonstrations.

Does the SP agree with those objectives? No! To repeat: like AWL, it thinks Israel has a right to exist.

The second striking thing in the slogan is the mystery of what it means. “Mass struggle”? Mass struggle has been absent, or very weak? The fact is that there have been mass mobilisations by Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. There is mass support for Hamas’s military campaign, including its homicide bombing campaign inside Israel – just as there is mass Israeli support for Israel’s military onslaught on Hamas in Gaza.

What would the SP propose to add in the way of “mass mobilisation” to what Hamas is already doing?

Nothing! The phrase “mass struggle” is — or is chiefly — code for the SP and its politically tuned-in periphery expressing their private opposition to militarism and “terrorism”. It is the SP pretending that Hamas militarism can be classed as “individual terrorism”.

What most people on the demonstrations would get is vague and rather needless “advice” on how the political Islamists could achieve their goal.

In this vein, Hannah Sell, the main organiser of the SP, was on a loud-hailer telling people that Hamas’s rockets on Israel had “failed”. This could not but be understood by most of her audience as the SP accepting everything Hamas tries to do, and criticising the rockets on Israel only for their lack of success in achieving their desired level of politically effective murderousness!

The first of the leaflet’s five summary slogans is a rephrasing of its main headline: “Stop the military onslaught now. End the blockade and occupation”. The second of the five is: “Escalate the anti-war demonstrations and initiate workers’ actions”.

The first part, “Escalate the anti-war demonstrations”, is no more than saying to the demonstrators: “Good on you”!

The second, “initiate workers’ actions”, meant what? What sort of “workers’ actions”? With what politics?

The second question is easier to answer than the first: with the politics of the demonstrations, what else?

Here the SP elevates sociology above politics. It doesn’t matter about the political aims of “action”, so long as it is action by workers. The focus on “workers” sounds very left-wing, but in context, on the demonstrations, it is the opposite: an appeal to workers to merge in with reactionary Arab or Islamic chauvinist politics and aims.

And what “workers’ actions”? Strikes? Refusal to load and unload goods to and from Israel? Airport staff to refuse to deal with passengers to and from Israel? In real terms, over and above lip-service to “workers’ action”, the only possible meaning of the SP slogan on the demonstrations was a call on Muslim workers to strike, occupy, whatever; and backing for the appeal, placarded and sloganised heavily on the demonstrations, for a general boycott of Israel.

The third slogan, “No trust in the world’s capitalist governments or the United Nations”, is socialist ABC stuff. In what circumstances could it ever be redundant? So why is it worthy here of being one of only five slogans?

In terms of the demonstrations, the emphasis in the SP leaflet on what is seemingly socialist ABC worked to merge what the SP was saying with the political Islamist hostility to most existing governments, to the UN — and to western bourgeois-democratic society as a whole, including its democratic elements.

But more. While we never give our confidence or confer political credence in advance on bourgeois governments or the UN, the fact is that the only thing that exists now, and in the calculable future, which can win a Palestinian state, is large-scale international pressure on Israel — in the first place, US pressure on Israel.

The alternative? The leaflet suggests that it is some sort of “mass” movement on the politics common, in varying political degrees, to the main “resistance” movements in the region now.

That is not a progressive alternative to the USA, the UN, or Britain. To pretend otherwise on the grounds that revolutionaries do not look to existing governments is not working-class politics. It is to sink oneself into a reactionary right-wing populism.

The broadsheet talks vaguely of “mass struggle” as the positive flipside to its negative slogan: “No trust in governments”. In fact, in the existing situation, “mass struggle” most likely is, and would be, mobilisation on Islamist politics and concerns and for Islamic goals — in many cases, for clerical-fascist goals. Mobilisation necessarily hostile to and repressive of independent working-class organisations.

Here the SP, under cover of pietistic “socialist” slogans, blends itself in with a reactionary populism and with the reactionary anti-imperialism of the SWP and others.

In the fourth slogan, “For independent workers organisations in Israel and Palestine”, there is debilitating vagueness. What exactly do they mean? Organisationally independent of existing states? Politically independent? There is question-begging: what are independent working-class politics, specifically, on the Israeli-Arab conflict. There is here too a downgrading of the Israeli trade union movement, the Histadrut, and a pandering to those on the demonstrations who would say that, being Israeli, it is no sort of trade union.

For the working class even to begin to be able to act as an independent force in Israel and Palestine, tremendous transformations in working-class political outlooks have to be made to happen. Independent working-class movements have to be built and, probably, a degree of political freedom for independent working-class organisation has to be won across the Middle East.

It is not a matter here of dogmatically postulating, Menshevik-style, the attainment of democratic rights as a necessary first step, but of recognising the tremendous difficulties which the present regimes in most Middle East countries put in the way of working-class politics.

The fifth slogan is a variant of asserting, but too abstractly, that “socialism is the answer”: “For a struggle for democratic socialism throughout the Middle East”. Yes, indeed. But for people who understand that only the working class can create socialism, “mass struggle” cannot be a struggle for socialism before the working class is organised and convincedly socialist.

These five slogans constitute the SP’s programme for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: stop the slaughter, independent “workers’ organisations” in Israel and Palestine, “struggle” for “democratic socialism”.

As a whole the programme is vague and startlingly sketchy and incomplete. What is missing is even more startling than what is present: other than “stop the slaughter”, and the call to organise independent working-class organisations to struggle for socialism throughout the Middle East, the SP has nothing explicit and spelled-out to say to the political issues that convulse the Middle East. It says nothing about the relationship between Israel and the Arab states and, very much to the point here, Hamas; and nothing about the national question in the Middle East. In the face of the Arab and Islamic chauvinism dominant on the demonstrations, in both direct versions and kitsch-left adaptations, it does not dare to argue for the SP’s own political positions on Israel, confining itself to a vague and ambivalent recognition that Israel exists now and for the immediate future.

The SP leaflet assumes, in passing, the continuing existence of Israel. The dominant political forces on the demonstrations deny Israel’s right to exist — vociferously and, in slogans, explicitly. The SP, addressing the demonstrators, does not argue for its political position on Israel’s right to exist!

Therefore the two passing references to “Israel” — “independent workers organisations in Israel and Palestine”, “The Israeli working class could potentially develop into a powerful and decisive force against the Israeli ruling class” — are ambivalent too. Acknowledging that Israel exists — and calling it Israel rather than some such term as “the Zionist entity”, as many demonstrators would — does not necessarily mean, and (to the point) for many or most demonstrators certainly did not amount to, an assertion that it has a right to continue existing.

To have any political meaning on the demonstrations, that assertion would have to be be solid, underlined, and argued for.

The SP’s political tendency has a very long history of using “socialism now” — meaning nationalisation of the economy — as a platitude to substitute for specific policies. For the SWP “build the revolutionary party” (i.e. “build the SWP”) is frequently a substitute for specific revolutionary policies; for the SP, “socialism is the only answer” does the same job.

So much for the “front” of the leaflet. The small print on the other side tends heavily towards demagogic exploitation of and pandering to the raw feelings and political assumptions of the demonstrators. The poison is in the mixing of proper humanitarian outrage with political accommodation to the Islamic chauvinists.

The leaflet asks: “Why is Israel carrying out this slaughter?”. The writer rejects the idea that the Hamas rockets could be even a subordinate part of the causes of the war.

“The Israeli ruling class do not care about the Jewish working class inhabitants of the towns bordering Gaza...”

Of course the Israeli ruling class don’t mind Jewish workers being killed by, or living in fear of, Hamas rockets! What do you think they are — people very conscious of Jewish history in the 20th century and for whom a common national identity would lead them to defend Jews, including workers, against Hamas?

National consciousness is not a category the SP recognises! For them, anything nationalist is always a disguise or outlet for some direct economic motive or interest.

For the SP, the Israeli ruling class merely “uses their plight” of Jewish workers under Hamas rockets “to justify this vicious war, which in reality is taking place for very different reasons”.

Which are? “The Israeli government feels humiliated by the war on Lebanon in 2006, and is beset by failure and scandal. Now they are trying to save themselves from defeat in next month’s elections by means of a wholesale slaughter of Palestinians”.

Most analysts, including those in Solidarity, list the felt need of the Israeli military to show that it can do better than it did in Lebanon in 2006, and the political jockeying between the Israeli parties, as elements in the decision now to go to full-scale war with Hamas. But the SP’s clumsy, dumb denial that the rockers were any part of the cause of Israel’s onslaught served, yet again, only to help the SP blend in with the dominant Arab and Islamic chauvinists on the demonstration. The chauvinists support the rocket attacks; the SP proclaims that they do not matter.

“The war also temporarily diverts attention away from the impact of the worldwide economic crisis as none of the main parties, which all support capitalism, have a solution that can guarantee jobs and living standards”. Again, the Hamas rockets were only the pretext. This is the “socialism”-as-placebo school of social medicine!

Under the crosshead, “World powers complicit”, the SP tells us that Bush backs Israel “to the hilt”. “Brown belatedly called for a ceasefire, but why trust this call when he leads a government involved in slaughter in Afghanistan?” As ever, the chief tool of SP analysis is the non-sequitur!

In fact, most of the governments deplored the Israeli onslaught; and one of Obama’s first acts as president has been to declare that there should be US negotiations with Iran, Hamas’s chief sponsor.

Again, the SP falsifies the real picture. Why? Because a crude, primary-colours comic-book picture of the world best matches their own crude comic-book-level version of politics in general and socialism in particular.

The SP’s concern with “slaughter in Afghanistan” comes strangely from people who for a decade, through the 1980s, avidly backed the Russian Stalinist colonial war in Afghanistan, which killed one in twelve of the people of Afghanistan and drove six million of its estimated 18 million population over the borders as refugees.

The next crosshead is “Arab league leaders”; the SP dismisses those leaders’ condemnation of “the massacre” because “they were complicit in Israel’s starving of Gaza’s inhabitants by Israel’s three year [in fact 18 months] siege”.

The SP makes the following statement of “socialist” principle: “Socialists fully defend the Palestinians’ right to armed resistance against the brutal occupation”. (If it were less “brutal”, it would be acceptable? And socialists would not defend the right of resistance?)

Yes, any Palestinians, whatever their politics, have a right to resist the occupation. But that right of resistance, and socialists’ automatic support for it, is here complicated by the fact that for Hamas the “occupied territories” include all of post-1948 Israel. Its objective is to destroy Israel; the rockets and the homicide bombings express that; and Hamas militarism cannot be disentangled from that fact. Moeover, the Hamas sub-state in Gaza ceased to be occupied in 2005.

Despite the statement of principle about supporting armed resistance, the SP does not actually support Hamas’s rockets. It rejects them. Why? “These attacks cannot defeat the Israeli state. On the contrary, they will make it easier for the Israeli government to win the support of the Israeli population for the war”.

The future tense is, I guess, designed to square this recognition of the rockets as a factor in winning Israeli popular support for the war with the leaflet’s earlier denial that the rockets were any part of the cause for the Israeli onslaught. Which means that their effect of winning mass Israeli support for the war is rendered mysterious.

While implicitly endorsing, or seeming to endorse, Hamas’s politics on Israel, the SP does not entirely neglect to criticise Hamas. What is wrong with Hamas politically?

“Hamas doesn’t have any viable strategy for defeating the occupation or for providing decent living standards for the Palestinian population, basing itself — as it does — on the continuation of capitalism with all the horrors that this system brings”.

The power of the SP leaders to pack vast quantities of political confusion, evasion, and muddle into one sentence is here, as always, impressive.

The SP does have a “viable strategy for ending the occupation”? Of course it has — “mass struggle”. What about the fact that the “mass struggle” of the second Intifada, after 2000, quickly led to the homicide bombing campaign in Israel, which had mass Palestinian support? Facts never banish belief in a cherished panacea for those who need it.

Alternatively, the trouble with Hamas is that they are not socialist, not anti-capitalist, and socialism and anti-capitalism would provide “a viable strategy”? In fact, the pauper’s-broth economic-reductionist “socialism” of the SP wouldn’t.

Unelss the socialists, Palestinian or Israeli or Egyptian or whatever, have a “viable” democratic programme for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their mere commitment to a collectivised democratic economic policy will be irrelevant to the burning issues of Middle East politics.

The Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution talked of socialism — and did more than talk — but they did not and could not dispense with the democratic programme on the national questions in the Russian empire. The SP broadsheet might usefully have tried to explain that to people on the demonstrations — as AWL did — but for that the SP leaders would have to understand it and have the nerve to proclaim it to a very hostile audience.

Instead, they demagogically merge as much as possible into the chauvinism of the demonstrations, and use the assertion that abstract “socialism” is the answer to evade the issues.

They preach “socialism” as a magic all-transforming blueprint. It is not that, but a programme for workers to fight for, including its democratic elements on the national question.

Finally, under the crosshead, “Israeli working class”, the broadsheet says: “The Israeli working class could potentially develop into a powerful and decisive force against the Israeli ruling class, which must be defeated to solve both Israeli workers’ own aspirations and those of the Palestinians”.

Class divisions in Israel are widening. “There is tremendous anger towards the government, on economic issues and over deteriorating security. Israeli Jews will never be free of the constant cycles of violence as long as they are led by capitalist politicians who regularly have an interest in resorting to national conflict”.

So for the SP, the national conflict between Israel and the Arabs — where only two Middle-East Arab states recognise Israel’s right to exist, and political Islam, including Hamas, proclaims and acts on the goal of destroying Israel – is nothing but a cheap political ploy by Israeli politicians. The national question is not real. Socialists do not need to have answers to it. Only bread-and-butter day-to-day economic questions provide the reality and dynamic of politics.

The SP’s barebones economic-reductionist version is – so to speak – the only real reality. The rest is only ruling class machinations.

In general, the politics of the SP are blighted by what Lenin, combatting it during World War One against such as the then ultra-left Nikolai Bukharin, called “imperialist economism” — the idea that issues like national rights are irrelevant in a world of giant capitalist powers.

How would the broadsheet’s sudden invocation of the Israeli working class go down with the Arab and Islamic chauvinists whom the SP panders to in the rest of the leaflet? Even here the SP rats on its own politics! It talks of Israel and the Israeli working class, but it does not proclaim and argue for Israel’s right to go on existing.

Many of the Arab chauvinist and Islamic chauvinist demonstrators – to go by talking to some of them – say that they would allow Jewish workers and others to carry on living in a Palestinian state encompassing what is now Israel. They present themselves as inclusive, and Israel as exclusive and “racist”.

What makes this nonsense even if sincerely believed in is that the conquest of Israel necessary to the state’s destruction would have to kill large parts of the Jewish population and subdue the rest. A state of equal Jewish and Arab citizens cannot be created by conquering the Jewish nation and depriving it of self-determination.

The SP’s talk in this leaflet of the Israeli working class, in the absence of any argument that Israel has a right to go on existing, does not necessarily contradict those benign-seeming delusions with which some Arab or Islamic chauvinists and some kitsch-leftists comfort themselves.

If what the SP — accepting as it does Israel’s right to exist – did on the demonstrations is the alternative to what AWL did, then there is no alternative to what did that would allow us to remain loyal to our basic revolurionary working class socialist politics.

In our situation it is necessary to spell out and emphasise your own politics and analysis, irrespective of the hostility you face, and no matter how “provocative” it seems to those who reject your ideas.

The socialist who is afraid to be unpopular, who cannot stand against the tide, or even the stream, is a poor little specimen indeed. When, for lack of political courage — and, at root, lack of sufficiently hard political conviction — the socialist trims, skilfully or as with the SP clumsily and stupidly, and tries to ingratiate himself with alien forces by, chameleon-like, adapting their colours, the result is self-effacement and political self-corruption. It has more than a little in it of political suicide.

For decades the SP predecessor, the Militant Tendency, adapted itself to the vague socialism that used to permeat the mass labour movement in Britain — for instance, divorcing the question of socialising (“nationalising”) the economy from the question of working-class state power, and so reducing socialism to mere “nationalisation”.

After a period of spectacular growth in the early 1980s, it eventually suffered a spectacular political collapse. The SP is part of the wreckage of that collapse. What the broadsheet shows is that its leaders have not learned from the experience.

The tendency has never been other than muddled, but long ago, before the collapse of European Stalinism and before the Blairite coup in the Labour Party, it was internally coherent muddle. Now Ted Grant’s patricidal orphans are only muddled — and shamefully unprincipled.

PDF icon 090129spgaza.pdf85.69 KB


Comedy gold.

This generally tedious denunciation is actually in one way a fascinating document. The core criticism Matgamna raises, once you get beneath the waffle, the excess verbiage and the insults, is that the Socialist Party has failed to raise its politics in a way calculated to make itself as obnoxious as possible to the people they are trying to talk to. And this is, apparently, a betrayal of all that’s right and just in the world.

A point of secondary interest is that it’s quite difficult to know who exactly the intended audience is for this polemic. It seems unlikely that even Matgamna thinks that he is going to win over Socialist Party members by arguing that they need to behave like pricks. We can only presume therefore that it’s aimed at punters in his own organisation who might be wondering why they can’t make their own arguments in a way designed to actually appeal to people who want to show their solidarity with the besieged Palestinians, rather than in a way designed to provoke and arouse instant hostility. Perhaps there are still some people in the AWL who think that the purpose of a socialist intervention into protests should be to win support for socialist ideas rather than to do everything in our power to make sure that nobody listens to us.

Try reading it, Mark P!

Were I "as tedious as a king", I'd gladly bestow it on the Socialist Party, (to quote the famous Dogberry, the original Keystone cop, who did to the English language what the the Socialist Party, under different name, has been doing to Marxism for seven decades). Mark P substitutes bluster, abuse and a seeming incapacity to read, for political discussion.

My "core criticism" he says "is that the Socialist Party has failed to raise its politics in a way calculated to make itself as obnoxious as possible" to those 'they are trying to talk to." No. My "core criticism" was that ye didn't openly raise the politics you supposedly profess, and that the SP leaflet was written to blend in with the reactionary politics that dominated the demonstrations; that your leaflet was couched as advice to Arab and Islamic chauvinists and clerical fascists.

Showing "solidarity with the besieged Palestinians", is one thing; politically mimicking the clerical fascists of Hamas, is something else again.

Not to "provoke and arouse instant hostility" is common sense; to avoid provoking hostility by hiding your politics — I won't here repeat what I said about this in the article —, whether motivated by timidity or opportunist calculation, or both, is politically dishonourable. It also shows a lack of seriousness about your own ideas — as well as failure to understand what the proper role of a small propaganda group (which is what the Socialist Party is, like AWL) must be.

There is no "popular" way to proclaim Israel's right to exist on a demonstration in which Arab/Islamic chauvinists, clerical-fascists and the kitsch left, are using justified indignation against Israel in Gaza to "sell" hostility to the very existence of the Jewish state. There is no popular way to denounce Islamic clerical fascism on demonstrations where their politics — in large part courtesy of the kitsch left — predominate. That is the point.

You might choose not to "intervene" in such a demonstration (because you were too weak to defend yourselves, or because you thought the differences so wide as to make it pointless). If Marxists decide to "intervene", then they should not submerge themselves politically; they should not hide their politics to the degree that the SP did on 3rd and 10th of January.

There are, of course, times when it is right to fudge politically, and even a duty to do so. Jim Larkin in the 1907 Belfast strike, maintaining a precarious Protestant-Catholic unity of striking workers by organising a joint Protestant-Catholic demonstration on July 12th in honour of both William of Orange and the Pope who had been his ally against France, is a good example of that sort of thing. It doesn't work politically (and though it held workers in unity for a while, it didn't work politically there either). The political fudge and mudge of the SP on the January demonstration was as senseless as it was dishonourable.

"The purpose of a socialist intervention into protests should be to win support for socialist ideas".

Agreed! What socialist ideas did the SP leaflet contain, beyond the timeless, epochal, vapid, and quintessentially SP, generality that "Socialism" is the answer? Saying that while being clueless, or afraid to say what you think, about the political issues agitating those on the "protest" into which you are "intervening" is to discredit socialism with people who think about the political issues, It is the socialism as placebo school of socialist propaganda. Much of what the leaflet said, as I demonstrated, was plain stupid, and that too could not but discredit the "socialist" panacea-mongering in it.

The SP approach left the reactionary politics that dominated the demonstrations unchallenged and uncontested.

Finally, our experience on the demonstrations, and on other demonstrations and pickets of the Israeli Embassy, has been that not only can you have reasonable discussions of the political issues with Muslims, even those influenced by the chauvinists, but that, typically, they are a lot easier to have such discussions with than the kitsch-leftists are. Our openly declared politics have not generally been a barrier to that.

Sean Matgamna

Workers Liberty - a muddled message on Gaza War

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.

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?

Eric Lee

We Are Not Israeli Nationalists

Eric Lee seems to have an identity problem! He confuses AWL and AWL politics with himself and his own politics. We did things and raised slogans that expressed our politics, and he blames us for not expressing his! Eric is an Israeli nationalist — a 'my country right or wrong' nationalist. We are International Socialists. We roundly condemn what Israel has just done in Gaza.

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.

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. It is, however, our base-line position.

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. 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.

We say, and in "Solidarity" and on the demos we said, that Israel should get out of Gaza and West Bank. Immediately.

"Third Campism" has nothing to do with it! (Nor anything to do with Eric's position, either: he is decidedly in the Israel camp).

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.

Do you seriously want to argue that it simply doesn't matter how many Palestinians are killed? That there is not a grotesque, obscene, disproportionality in what happened in Gaza? That the widespread outrage against Israel was not justified? That it was a pure outpouring of anti-Jewish prejudice? I agree that we must fight the prejudice. International Socialists — "Third Campists", if you prefer that — must also know when to side with the Palestinians against the indefensible use of its military power by Israel.

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!" How would you go about arguing that that is not your position, Eric?

Eric might like to comment on this point from the editorial in the last "Solidarity": "Politically [the war] arises out of the Israeli establishment’s refusal to work effectively to lay the political foundations of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Nothing less will do for the Palestinians. Nothing less will bring — or begin to bring, or could hope to bring — peace between Israel and the the Palestinians, and the rest of the Arab world.

"Above all else, it is Israel’s refusal, despite hypocritical words, to accept and actively work for that political settlement that sets the scene for continuing conflict. It wasn’t always so. For half a century most of the Arab states refused to recognise Israel. It is so now that the Arab League (of states) proposes a settlement that would on the Arab side involve recognition of Israel."

Eric might also tell us what is wrong with this statement in the Editorial:

"[The foregoing] discredits the Israeli nationalist case for the present war as the necessary means to stop Hamas rockets raining down on Israel. It renders all simple Israeli nationalist arguments from Israel’s inalienable right to defend itself indistinguishable from outright Israeli chauvinism. Other, better, ways to the same Israeli end are possible and more likely to bring a long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Ways that give to the Palestinians the just settlement to which they have an inalienable right: their own state, side by side with Israel."

Not the least of Eric's confusions is that he confuses Israeli chauvinism with Third Camp Independent Socialism. We are internationalists. We defend nations and national movements, when we do, as Internationalists, as International Socialists, or else we are not socialists at all.

Sean Matgamna

Oh dear.

Unfortunately Sean, I have read your article. I've even read your response. And in both cases I'm rather afraid that I won't be getting those wasted minutes back.

I have to admit that being accused of dealing in "bluster and abuse" has given me occasion for a wry chuckle, given that my accuser's main claim to distinction has been a single minded dedication to penning an ongoing collection of spittle flecked factional rants abusing just about every force on the left. It's even more laughable to be accused of lacking reading comprehension skills by someone who managed to read a leaflet arguing for a way forward for the Palestinians, including an alliance with the Israeli working class, opposition to the rocket attacks and the creation of independent working class organisations but apparently managed to get the impression that it represented "an uncritical siding with Hamas."

Amusement aside, it is interesting that the AWL's head honcho is incapable of distinguishing between advice to Palestinians on how to move their liberations struggle forward and "advice to Arab and Islamic chauvinists and clerical fascists". Someone less generous than I might suggest that it reveals an interesting inability to differentiate between the Palestinian people and Hamas.

It is also interesting that Sean seems to think that the most important element of a correct socialist intervention into rallies against Israel's bombardment of the world's largest prison camp is "to proclaim Israel's right to exist" rather than to express solidarity with the Palestinians and point a way forward for their struggle. Perhaps in Sean's distant universe the Palestinians were, at the time of these demonstrations, in the process of pounding a defenceless Tel Aviv into rubble and the ongoing struggle was for the right of Israeli Jews to self-determination in the face of an oppressive occupation?

The Socialist Party does not deny the right of the Israeli Jews to self-determination. That does not mean that we think it's useful or appropriate to respond to the crimes of the Israeli state by denouncing marches in solidarity with the Palestinians as "clerical fascist" or by waving the Israeli flag around. Those sort of antics are appropriate for a deranged sect trying desperately to mark itself out as the only true leftists, not for Marxists who are serious about making a socialist intervention.

While you spend your time making sure that nobody gives your underlying ideas any kind of hearing, the Socialist Party prefers to try to raise our ideas in a way that starts where people actually are politically and to move the argument on from there. As a result, we've been able to get on with the work of helping to build a movement in solidarity with the Palestinians and at the same time open up a dialogue with some of the people on those marches about socialist ideas and a programme for the struggle. Meanwhile, the AWL, as a direct result of its childishly antagonistic way of raising its views, is now busy writing open letters to provincial PSC groups about how evil protesters took your Israeli flag away. And of course foaming at the mouth at other socialists for their criminal failure to make themselves as obnoxious and irrelevant as you do.

As DB notes in his post to this discussion, there may be some AWL members who are a bit embarrassed about all of this. If so, I'd advise them to have a little think about whether or not this is the face they really want to present to the world.

Sharp and clear


Clearly we are not suggesting that socialist interventions should be calculated to be as offensive/alienating as possible. That is obvious from what we have published and from our work in the Palestine solidarity movement over the last month - but also from the fact that we, erm, you know, DON'T SAY THAT.

We do, however, demand that socialists are clear and sharp on such crucial things as:

- What the only immediate democratic settlement to the conflict is, ie two states for two peoples.
- Israel's right to self-determination/existence.
- The fact that invoking socialism in the abstract is no substitute for developing a democratic program for a working-class response to the national conflict.
- The reactionary nature of Hamas, both in terms of its program for the national question and its 'internal' politics.

Like our propaganda in the solidarity movement, Sean's critique is sharp and clear. Sorry if that offends you: I think it's probably your/the SP's guilty political conscience whispering in your ear.

Sacha Ismail


Far from being offended, Sacha, I'm merely amused at the AWL's pater familias wasting so much ink on such a bizarre and misjudged polemic. A polemic which, quite unwittingly reveals in its essence much about the AWL's method. By that I don't mean the near insane argument that calling for an end to the slaughter in Gaza is "an uncritical siding with Hamas", nor the equally barking claim that advice to the Palestinians on tactics and strategy to fight their oppression is actually "advice to Hamas".

No, what I mean is the AWL's apparent belief that the best way to get a hearing for their ideas is to do everything they can to incur the anger of everyone else on the marches. Here is the core of Matgamna's argument:

"In our situation it is necessary to spell out and emphasise your own politics and analysis, irrespective of the hostility you face, and no matter how “provocative” it seems to those who reject your ideas.

The socialist who is afraid to be unpopular, who cannot stand against the tide, or even the stream, is a poor little specimen indeed. When, for lack of political courage — and, at root, lack of sufficiently hard political conviction — the socialist trims, skilfully or as with the SP clumsily and stupidly, and tries to ingratiate himself with alien forces by, chameleon-like, adapting their colours, the result is self-effacement and political self-corruption.

Leaving aside the typical AWL bombast and the self-justificatory tone, this is extremely revealing.

The AWL has a wide set of politics (the unkind might say an eclectic mix). There are many things it thinks that I would agree with: That we need a socialist revolution, the creation of workers councils, the overthrow of the capitalist state. These are much more central to the AWL's politics than its rather idiosyncratic adaptations to imperialism. Yet they feel no need to raise these issues to the front and centre of their arguments at every turn. Instead, they talk about things like a workers government. Is this a gross betrayal of principle? No, it isn't. It's an attempt, not a particularly good one, but an attempt, to raise their arguments with people in a way that is comprehensible in current circumstances to the people they are talking with.

When it comes to the Middle East this sort of approach goes out the window for the AWL. Instead of trying to reach people where they actually are politically and moving the argument on from there, the AWL prefer to denounce and provoke and go out of their way to create hostility to their ideas and their organisation. This is, to borrow a phrase from an American friend of mine, an ass-backwards way of going about things.

Now we have very real disagreements with the AWL about Israel and Palestine on significant political issues, centrally the AWL's bizarre faith that a capitalist two state solution is possible that doesn't amount to corralling the Palestinians into what would amount to little more than Bantustans. However, their distinctive views, if expressed in a reasonable manner, are not beyond the bounds of the mainstream anti-war movement, particularly towards its liberal and pacifist edge.

An organisation that was actually serious about spreading socialist ideas and socialist arguments on these demonstrations would start from solidarity with the Palestinians and would then point towards the power of the working class including, vitally, the Israeli working class, the futility of the methods of terrorism or indiscriminate bombings of civilians and so on. It would not start by denouncing the views of most demonstrators as "clerical fascist" (!), or by waving around the Israeli flag at a demonstration against Israel's murderous bombardment of what amounts to the world's largest prison camp. On the other hand, a sect determined at all costs to mark itself out against its competitors and unconcerned at the effect this has on their ability to actually get a hearing from the marchers may well do exactly these things.

Which brings me back to the second point I made above. Matgamna and his followers have some fairly odd ideas, but even taking that for granted I find it difficult to imagine that they could possibly think that an argument that the Socialist Party doesn't spend enough time and energy on making sure that its arguments aren't listened to would be an effective way of winning over supporters of the SP. Few people are likely listen to advice which goes along the lines of "You know what your problem is? You just aren't big enough arseholes." So that really only leaves us with one option. This is aimed primarily at people in the AWL who might feel a bit uncomfortable with a political strategy which insists that after shooting themselves in one foot, reloading and shooting the other foot is the only principled follow up.

There may perhaps be some, rather bewildered, AWL members remaining who are actually interested in getting a hearing for socialist ideas and who feel that it is counterproductive to pose their views in a way seemingly designed to enrage people and stop them from listening. If so, I would encourage them to contact the Socialist Party and consider getting involved in a serious political organisation rather than a circus sideshow.

Say nothing politics

I think Sean's article takes apart the SP's line on the middle east bit by bit, and with little effort because he's been doing it since England won the World Cup. But that's not what Mark P is arguing about, not surprisingly.

Instead he thinks the AWL is too argumentative, too honest maybe. This, and the "sideshow circus" line, is a variant of the Grantite "sects on the fringes of the labour movement" riff used to warn off Militant/SP members from straying from "the Marxists" in the labour movement. Instead the SP, like the SWP, do their dirty factional work behind closed doors.

Paul, you misunderstand

Paul, you misunderstand entirely.

I don't need to "warn off" anybody from the AWL in current circumstances any more than I would have to "warn off" anybody from associating with someone stumbling around the streets, swigging from a can of special brew and mumbling abuse at passers-by. The AWL, when it's behaving as it currently is, is quite capable of isolating itself without any assistance from me. Nobody likes being covered in spittle.

As I said above, we have some very significant political disagreements with the AWL about this subject. I think, for instance, that the AWL's idea of a two state solution under capitalism would, at best, amount to the creation of Palestinian Bantustans. But the central thrust of this bizarre polemic is not against our socialist approach to the issue, instead it consists of a claim that we have somehow abandoned or betrayed our own politics by not acting like arseholes, running about the Palestinian solidarity demonstrations waving the Israeli flag and denouncing the rest of the demonstrators as "clerical fascists".

The issue here is not, as you comically suggest, the AWL's alleged "honesty" or even that they are "too argumentative". The issue is plainly and simply whether it's more effective to spread socialist ideas by taking as a starting point where people actually are and trying through careful explanation to convince them of our ideas. Or whether it's a better strategy to do everything we can to make ourselves obnoxious to, isolate ourselves from, denounce and anger the people we are trying to convince.

I would encourage any remaining AWL members who still have some critical faculties to think long and hard about what they are trying to achieve and whether or not their current approach contributes anything to achieving it.

Mark, What socialist ideas


What socialist ideas are you spreading? You are actually avoiding the central issue to the whole dispute, which is national rights. All you do is say socialism, or some king of workers' struggle (for what?) is the answer. For ever and ever amen. And there you go again, "two state solution under capitalism." You won't offend anyone, or indeed win anyone to socialist politics, because you are saying nothing.


Mark P. is right in his observations about the approach of the "Matgamnites" in Workers Liberty, although I don't think this applies to all AWL members and activists. As I pointed out on another thread, I still think Workers Liberty's presence is important and its actions largely honourable in the context of trying to push a secular, socialist, 2-states agenda on the Israel/Palestine question. Sadly for them, their glorious leader's sanctimonious polemics are often an embarrassment and it is quite breathtaking (but funny) that Matgamna has the balls to accuse others of resorting to "bluster and abuse" when in actual fact that's his stock and trade.

Let us not forget that Workers Liberty's very first public response to the crisis, back in late December, was to post a press release by Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, which mobilised an immediate demonstration of about 1000 in Tel Aviv on 27 December. Adam Keller's account of the demo, which appeared as a comment on this website, reported that the main slogans at the demonstration (orchestrated by the Coalition of Women for Peace, Hadash, Gush Shalom, the Anarchists, Tarabut and the Meretz grassroots network) included the following:

"Stop the massacre!" / "Olmert's War - Our Victims!" / "War is not election s spin" / "No to the murder of innocents!" / "We Israelis say: The Government of Israel perpetrates War Crimes!" / "International Intervention Now!" / "EU, Stop the War!". "Livni, Murder is not Feminist!" / "Thou Shalt Not Kill!" ... "This is not my war!" ... "Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies!" / In Gaza and Sderot, Children Want to Live!" / War is a disaster - Peace is the solution!" / Stop the War! Return to the Truce!" / Silence the guns - Save the peoples!" / Barak, Barak, hey, hey, hey - How many did you kill today?" / "Bloodshed will not buy you power!" / "The blood is flowing for the ministers' prestige!" / "The blood is flowing for the polls of the corrupt parties!" / "No to War! - Back to Negotiations!"

So there you have it: what you might call the Israeli's left's "uncritical siding with Hamas".

Tel Aviv is not London, duhh.

Tel Aviv's march was not organised by an alliance of Islamists and leftists united around the ideas: stop the (Israeli) bombing; abolish Israel; victory to Hamas (the last two delivered euphemistically). The Tel Aviv and London slogans had a different political content (even as some of the words are the same).
In Britain we have an obligation to expose and make explicit the meanings and logic of the Gaza march organisers' slogans and politics. If that were to make us universally unpopular - so be it. We tell the truth.
But in fact our experience is different and more complex. We have become the target for abuse from some sections of the left and the Islamists - but the big majority of people (i.e. reasonable people who just attend) are fine with what we say. In some ways we're trying to give a fully-rounded political expression to the vaguely held views of very many on these demos.
So the SP, in an attempt to find the ear of the militant Islamic youth by toning down or avoiding appropriate and necessary criticisms of Hamas are failing to educate a much bigger group of people on these marches.

Cf Anti-Zionism

In the same way that the AWL refuses to declare itself "anti-Zionist".

Of course, we are against Zionism, on the same basis that we are against all nationalism. But we refuse to go along with the idea that Zionism is somehow intrinsically worse than other nationalisms, or that it can be understood except as part of a network of antagonistic and competing nationalisms, including a number whose leaders aim to crush Israel.

But, obviously, for Israeli socialists to call themselves anti-Zionist is a different matter.


Logic fail

the AWL refuses to declare itself "anti-Zionist".

Of course, we are against Zionism

Logic fail.

I am against Zionism, therefore unavoidably I am "anti-Zionist", and if you are really against Zionism you are too. I do not believe "that Zionism is somehow intrinsically worse than other nationalisms, or that it can be understood except as part of a network of antagonistic and competing nationalism". This does not mean I am not anti-Zionist, it just means that I have a decent political analysis of what Zionism is. (We could have a debate here about what you mean by 'intrinsically worse', but I think I know what you're trying to say. I mean, obviously it is intrinsic to really existing Zionism that it takes place in the historical/geographical conjunction that it in fact does, and it follows from this that it is materially worse in its effects than - for example - Swedish nationalism. And in turn it follows from this that on the ideological level, it typically takes on uglier characteristics than Belgian nationalism. But it is not worse because Israelis are intrinsically worse people than Swedes.)

Why play silly semantic games? Because you think people aren't clever enough to not misinterpret the phrase 'anti-Zionism' when you use it? So you say something that's obviously oxymoronic in order to stand out from the crowd?

Edited to add...

obviously, for Israeli socialists to call themselves anti-Zionist is a different matter.

What if an Israeli socialist initiated a call for international solidarity under the banner of 'anti-Zionism'? Would you sign up, or give your apologies on the ground that they can be 'anti-Zionist', whereas you can't?!

No logical fail

> Logic fail.

Not at all.

> I am against Zionism, therefore unavoidably I am "anti-Zionist", and if you are really against Zionism you are too.

Come on Tom, you're being obtuse. My point is obviously that I don't want to use anti-Zionism as a prominent, self-defining LABEL; not that I think there is an abstract logical difference between the words 'being against Zionism' and 'being anti-Zionist'. Or, to put it another way, the problem is that 'anti-Zionist' has come to mean more than just 'being against Zionism'; it is a political label with all sorts of connotations, ie the ones I spelt out. In a certain sense, then, yes, we are anti-Zionists; but we refuse to use the label 'anti-Zionist'. (For the same reason that we say 'Two states' rather than just saying 'an independent Palestinian state' - no one had to say 'Algeria and France - two nations, two states'.)

Similarly, I am against Palestinian nationalism, but I don't call myself 'anti-Palestinian nationalist'. (Similarly, not identically - I don't equate the nationalism of the oppressed with the nationalism of the oppressor, but the point is that Zionism is not *simply* an oppressor nationalism.) Generally, in fact, I haven't noticed socialists defining themselves as particularly against one specific nationalism and using this as a label - even in much more clear cut cases (eg 'Anti-American nationalist').

> What if an Israeli socialist initiated a call for international solidarity under the banner of 'anti-Zionism'? Would you sign up, or give your apologies on the ground that they can be 'anti-Zionist', whereas you can't?!

You might sign up critically, depending on the content and purpose. But I would also say, comrades, this is a pretty silly basis on which to demand international solidarity. Btw, do you know any Israeli socialists who go out of their way to define themselves as being 'anti-British nationalist' (rather than opposed to nationalism in general, and of course also to British imperialism) in the way the British left harps on about 'anti-Zionism'?

I remember seeing a French socialist paper, I think linked to the SWP, which had the banner - not related to any particular article, just a general self-description - 'anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, anti-capitalist'. Much like the slogan "Smash capitalism, smash Israel" being shouted through the SWP megaphone at 10 January Gaza demo in London. Bizarre and noxious.


I think Sean has pretty

I think Sean has pretty comprehensively demolished Ian's arguments.

One point of disagreement, however.

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.

Sacha Ismail

Is A W L "Zionist"?

One one level it's a sterile argument, whether we are “Zionists” or not. I defined what I understand by it — support for a/the Jewish state. That describes me, and though Sacha is entitled to reject the label for himself, I think it describes him.

I didn't say AWL is Zionist, because I know that other comrades, like Sacha, would disagree. I said it in reply to Ian Sternberg in order to put my criticism of the Israeli war in our, and not the Kitsch-Left's, political framework. I counterpoed Zionism in general, meaning support for a Jewish state, to the “nationalism” I see in Ian Sternberg and Eric Lee.

We, AWL, are International Socialists, not any sort of nationalists; we do however, from our own point of view, champion national rights and national freedom for those who want it — here for the Palestinian and the Israeli Jewish nations.

Yet there is a point. 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.

The example of Eleanor Marx strikes me as a good example: when the “anti-Alien (anti-Jewish) agitation was at its most intense, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, she told the East End workers, who knew her as their supporter, that she was “a Jewess”. One of her grandfathers, Karl Marx's father, was a Jewish “convert” to Christianity, seeking the civil liberties such a “conversion” brought. She had less reason for adopting the name of the targets of the anti-alien agitation than supporters of a Jewish/Zionist state have for calling themselves “Zionists”. But, let's agree to differ on it, Sacha.

Sean Matgamna