At the SWP fringe meeting at the recent National Union of Students conference, in Newcastle on 13 April, SWP speaker Yunus Bakhsh accused the AWL of racism: “You don't like black people”.
Three AWL comrades had intervened in the meeting with political criticism of the SWP. Yunus responded angrily, with no connection whatsoever to what we had said, by accusing our Newcastle comrade Ed Whitby of not mobilising for the Bolton anti-EDL demo. When Ed replied that he had, in fact, been in Bolton, Yunus shot back: “Look, I know you don't like black people, but be quiet.”
This was from the 'platform' (the meeting was by the SWP stall), in full hearing of about 20 SWP students. No one denied, or could deny, that it took place. Later that day, leading student SWPer Hanif Leylabi approached us to say Yunus' comments were “out of order” and apologise (in a personal capacity).
Why does it matter?
Debate on the left is a good thing. There should be a lot more of it, and sometimes that will include sharp polemics. But accusing other socialists of racism - in a very stark and straight-down-the-line way - is not a 'normal' disagreement. If Yunus' accusation is true, then we should be shunned and politically exposed.
If, on the other hand, Yunus was engaging in dishonest, Stalinist-style slander of political opponents, then it is the interests of all socialists, not least the SWP, that he is called to account.
Some will no doubt accuse us of overplaying and exploiting this incident to attack our political opponents. Or of being a group which does little but criticise others on the left - a charge fully answered simply by the list of activities mentioned in this letter! We think socialists accused of as grave an anti-working class stance as racism have a right to demand the charge is justified or formally withdrawn; and that insisting on basic standards of political honesty in debate is essential for building a healthy, united left.
In addition, we do not want this sort of incident to become more common! In 1993, when AWL members were physically attacked by SWPers outside the Marxism event, we also made a fuss – and although the SWP never responded, there has been little of that kind since.
The charge is ludicrous
The AWL is a revolutionary socialist group. As such we are militant opponents of and fighters against all forms of racism.
Leave aside the fact that we have black and Asian members and sympathisers. We think our record and our politics speak for themselves. We are a small group, with limited resources - even by the standards of the SWP - but in fact we think our record on fighting racism is better and more consistent than the SWP's.
One important example: in 1978, when the National Front announced plans to march on Brick Lane, the SWP and Anti-Nazi League refused to cancel their carnival in Brockwell Park. Thus while something like 100,000 attended the carnival, only a few hundred socialists, including the forerunner of the AWL, helped Bengali activists in an unsuccessful attempt to defend Brick Lane against the fascists. (See here.) Isn't that disgraceful?
This is not just ancient history. Not only has the SWP never admitted it was wrong – but UAF, led by the SWP, behaves much the same way today. When Notts Stop the BNP, in which the AWL is prominently involved, initiated protests against the BNP's Red, White and Blue festival in Derbyshire, UAF ignored the issue for eight months – and then, rather than working or even discussing plans with local groups, organised its own mobilisation in rivalry with them.
Slander – open and hidden
Yunus' outburst is not an isolated incident. For instance, one prominent SWP student in Sheffield, Lewie Morris, has claimed repeatedly on the internet that the AWL has links with the English Defence League – resulting in new SWP students asking our Sheffield comrades about this! What was unusual about Yunus' attack was that it was not made 'behind our backs', in a private conversation, or even as part of an internet discussion, but from the platform of an SWP public meeting.
Who can doubt that many SWPers make similar claims when there is no AWL member around to hear them and object? The SWP students we spoke to after the NUS meeting had been told all kind of nonsense about us – for instance that our comrade Ed Whitby, who is a Unison activist, had done nothing to defend Yunus when he was victimised by his employer and the Unison bureaucracy. There is a culture of lying about opponents in the SWP which seems to be becoming increasingly widespread. We want to put a stop to it.
SWPers regularly claim that the AWL is Islamophobic. This too is a slander.
We think the SWP has substantially abandoned the Marxist critique of political Islam as a reactionary, anti-working class force – in theory, and even more in practice. Your alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain and British Muslim Initiative, offshoots of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, in the anti-war movement, was a turning point. From there it was a short hop to your disastrous political coalition with Galloway and his supporters, in the name of which you destroyed the Socialist Alliance. Today the SWP still refuses to make solidarity with the worker and student victims of the Iranian Islamist regime, bizarrely claiming that this would weaken the struggle against a US attack on Iran.
Our characterisation of movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamists in power in Iran, as “clerical fascist” echoes... Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP, who used the term to describe the Muslim Brotherhood in 1946. (If you don't believe us, see his article here.)
Unable to answer these criticisms, SWPers fall back on lies about us: that we supported Israel's war in Gaza/support a US attack on Iran, that we didn't want the anti-war movement to involve Muslims, that we support a ban on the hijab... We think Islam is inherently more reactionary than other religions... We say all Muslims are fascists (this is a real example!) The list goes on and on, becoming more and more absurd.
As a Marxist organisation, the AWL is critical of all religions and vehemently opposed to right-wing religio-political movements including (not limited to) Islamism. We oppose the growing influence of religion in politics and society. But we are equally clear on the need to fight the growing bigotry against and persecution of Muslims and people of Muslim background.
See, for instance, the call we issued after the 7/7 bombings in London for the labour movement to “Rally to defend Muslims and mosques”. That is only one example of many such positions.
The real difference between us is not on the need to fight anti-Muslim racism and bigotry, but on the need for socialists to criticise and oppose right-wing politicised religion. Thus we get the ludicrous situation in NUS where the SWP sides with Labour Students, UJS et al in championing religious schools! Similarly, in the National Union of Teachers, SWP members oppose the call for the abolition of religious schools, claiming this is Islamophobic – even though 99 percent of such schools are Christian.
You could in fact make a case that it is the SWP view, which seems to regard all Muslims as a homogenous block, and equate criticism of religious reaction and right-wing Islamists with anti-Muslim racism, which is 'Islamophobic'!
For a discussion of these issues in depth, see our reply to Lindsey German in 2004.
… and anti-semitism
But don't we call the SWP anti-semitic? Isn't that the same as Yunus saying we don't like black people?
Firstly, the AWL has made an extensive, detailed case for why the SWP's policy on Israel-Palestine has anti-semitic implications. In denying them the right to self-determination and an independent state, the SWP treats the Israeli Jews as it treats no other nation. (For an outline of this argument in more general terms, see for instance our interview with Moishe Postone here.) Agree or disagree with this line of thought, it is a well-documented and consistently argued position. We do not throw it randomly at SWPers when we feel that we are losing an unrelated argument (the discussion at the NUS fringe meeting until Yunus exploded had not touched on racism).
Secondly, there is a great deal of evidence beyond attitudes to Israel-Palestine of the SWP's accommodation to anti-semitism. For instance, the repeated invitations, condemned even by militantly anti-Zionist 'one state' Jews, for anti-semitic conspiracy theorist Gilad Atzmon to play and speak at SWP events (see here). Or the recent invitation by the SWP in Bradford for the Holocaust-denier-linked Islamist group MPAC to speak on a UAF platform (see here).
Thirdly, we say that the SWP's politics on Israel-Palestine have an anti-semitic logic, despite the intentions of those who hold them. We have stressed that this anti-semitism is not of the far-right racist type, and that we are not calling individual SWPers anti-semites. We don't say “We know you don't like Jews”. In contrast, Yunus felt free to tell us we “don't like black people”, out of the blue and without even an attempt at justification.
Isn't it ironic?
The claim that the AWL is racist is particularly ironic when you consider who the SWP is happy to work with in, for instance, its anti-fascist campaigning.
The implication of being a “key signatory” of UAF is presumably, at least, that one does not dislike black people! Yet this list includes not only David Cameron, who under pressure from the BNP and UKIP is promising to cut immigration to 75,000 a year, but Tory MP “Sir” Teddy Taylor, of the far-right, anti-immigration Monday Club. (See the UAF website here.) So these people are good anti-racists, but the AWL is a racist organisation?
All this might cause some SWPers to think critically about their organisation's “broad unity” approach to anti-fascism – not broad unity within the labour and anti-racist movements, but unity with bourgeois and in some cases racist politicians who limit what we can say and do in the fight against the Nazis.
Can we work together?
Part of the reason for lying about the politics of the AWL on these questions seem to be to convince SWP members and sympathisers in the student movement that we cannot work together for sectarian reasons.
Yet, although many SWP students seem to be unaware of it, our groups work together in all kinds of other forums. In Unison, for instance, SWP and AWL members are currently standing together with others on a joint slate for the national executive (see here the April 24 call in Socialist Worker for a vote for AWL member Alison Brown). We worked together extensively at the Vestas occupation, where the AWL and SWP were the only two socialist groups seriously involved. Both our groups were prominent in the Campaign to Save NUS Democracy two years ago. On the subject of Palestine, we worked together during the occupations against Israel's attack on Gaza – while your ally in the recent NUS elections, Fiona Edwards, conspired to undermine the occupation we played a leading role in at Sheffield University!
And of course we were in the Socialist Alliance together, until the SWP broke it up in order to pursue its alliance with Galloway.
In April, when our comrade Jade Baker was elected, as a part of a left slate, sabbatical VP Education at Westminster Uni, your new NUS executive member Mark Bergfeld sent her congratulations. Why would he congratulate a member of a racist organisation?
Part of the picture is real political disagreements – over Palestine, Islamophobia and many other issues – being distorted in order to claim that the AWL is racist, as a self-serving way to justify SWP sectarianism in the student movement.
Don't let this go unchallenged!
You do not have to agree with the politics of the AWL to see that Yunus Bakhsh's accusation of racism was a grotesque slander, and that it should not be allowed to go unchallenged. This is as much in the interests of the SWP as in the interests of the socialist, labour and student movements more broadly. We urge you to take this issue up in your organisation, and support our call for the SWP Central Committee to investigate the matter.
Yours for socialism,
Alliance for Workers' Liberty