Last week AWL activists leafleted SWP meetings to try to engage SWP members over their organisations support for a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian presidential elections.
Generally we found SWP members unwilling even to take our leaflet, never mind read it and discuss. If a debate had actually taken place it might have looked like this.
SWP: Fundamentally you are sectarians. You intend to turn your backs on the mass of workers who are following the Muslim Brothers. The Brothers got 10 million votes in the parliamentary elections in December 2011. Yes, the leaders are well-off, but the rank and file are workers. In the Suez industrial area, for example, the big majority of workers voted for the Brothers or the salafist party Nour. We need to win the workers and to do that we need to get close to them, link up with them and talk to them.
AWL: Get close to them and link up? – you’re addressing this as an organisational matter, as if we just need a bus ticket to Alexandria. ‘Talk to them’? Of course, but we differ on what to say
You approach the question like a sociologist – we don’t just ‘follow the workers’ irrespective of what the workers are actually doing. We’re not ‘ignoring’ the workers who follow the Brothers, but sometimes it is necessary to say to workers: this party will lead you to a disaster; workers have their own interests, distinct from the right-wing religious sectarians, pro-market millionaires and professionals who run the Brotherhood.
By endorsing the Brothers you certainly are turning your backs on women, Christian workers, young liberals, trade unionists and leftists who are for democracy and are rightly alarmed by the Brothers. The MB’s support peaked in December, millions have turned away from them – our job is to encourage that flow towards us.
SWP: If you fail to vote for the Brothers you will never get a hearing from the many millions that still follow them. We have not dropped a single criticism of them. That is not necessary. We have made no political concession.
AWL: Voting for them is a political concession! Advocating a vote for them means taking some responsibility for them – you are recommending them, at some level, to the workers.
SWP: Yes, of course we are. They are preferable to the tired, corrupt old regime. Is that not true? Our slogan is the old communist one: ‘march separately, and strike together’.
AWL: In your case that useful idea is rewritten: ‘march behind, help them strike for what they want’. ‘March separately; strike together’ is the idea behind the workers’ united front. It is a joke to use it here, now, with the clerical right-wing MB!
During the election campaign they presented themselves as pro-market, overtly Islamic, devout.
SWP: Well, what do you expect? Most Egyptians are devout. Simply denouncing religious parties and Islam will get you nowhere. We need to be sensitive to religious sensibilities.
The MB is continuing the revolution against the old regime. Many voted for them to express opposition to the old regime. We have to relate to such people. Moreover the attempted on-going ‘slow’ coup by the army is undermining your position. Right now, on the streets it is: for the military? or for democracy and the people’s choice, the Brothers?
AWL: The Brothers sat on the sidelines while the youth fought in the streets against Mubarak. The political benefits have, unfortunately fallen into their laps. The aim of socialist activity is to make a third choice possible – workers’ liberty – and a political collapse in front of the Brothers will not do that.
No-one advocates headlines on all socialist propaganda: ‘Down with Islam!’ Equally we are secular Marxists, and it would be better if you remembered that.
Let’s accept that the Brothers are ‘making a revolution’. But it is their revolution, which is both against the army, and simultaneously against us – the left, the workers, the feminists.
SWP: Reformists always compromise and often let others do their fighting. We must be there to point out to the poor and the youth that follow the MB that they should be pursuing a resolute struggle against the army and old regime.
The MB took a turn after the book Signposts, by Sayyid Qutb, was published in the mid-60s. They stopped seeing the only enemy as imperialism, and attacked the local state directly. They were very embarrassing for the moderates. Thousands of young radicals were inspired.
AWL: Yes, but inspired to do what, exactly? You are relating to them like the LP, which is absurd. They are no sort of working class party. Are they?
SWP: Your argument has become even weaker as the military have begun to move against the Brothers and against democracy. Socialists defend the MB against the military and defend the right of the MB to take power – they have a majority, let’s put them to the test. When the MB take people out onto the streets in self-defence we must be with them, against the military. Or would you stand on the sidelines while the military take full control again?
AWL: If big, popular mobilisations against the military threat take place, led by the MB, clearly socialists would take part. We’d intervene, organise our own contingents; organise our own initiatives. Attempt to rally the workers and poor not just against the military but for democracy, women’s and workers’ rights. We would aim to rally people not just against the military, but for our positive demands.
SWP: And you fail to understand the potentially anti-imperialist role of Islamism. The Iranian Islamists did take control of the US embassy. The Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine have played a key role in the armed struggle against Israel. The Algerian FIS did organise huge demonstrations against the first US war against Iraq.
AWL: Before coming to power Khomeini said he was for democracy, women’s rights and against imperialism. Anti-imperialism is not enough: what is important is what a political group is for. You fail to understand the counter-revolutionary role of Islamism. These forces will smash us and kill us if they can.
SWP: The job is to relate to the radicals amongst the Islamists. In the Prophet and the Proletariat  the SWP’s Chris Harman wrote, “As with any ‘petty bourgeois utopia’ its supporters are faced with a choice between heroic but futile attempts to impose it in opposition to those who run existing society, or compromising with them, providing an ideological veneer to continuing oppression and exploitation. It is this which leads inevitably to splits between a radical, terrorist wing of Islamism on the one hand, and a reformist wing on the others. It is also this which leads some of the radicals to switch from using arms to try to bring about a society without ‘oppressors’ to using them to impose ‘Islamic’ forms of behaviour on individuals.”
AWL: So Harman thought that the radicals, involved in armed ‘resistance’ would come over to our side? Hasn’t this nonsense been ended by 9/11?
This is simply another example of the SWP becoming mesmerised by ‘militancy’ rather than actually asking what a particular political force positively stands for. For example, look at Hamas – the Brothers sister party - in Gaza. Sure, they oppose the Israelis – but in their own way, for their own reactionary reasons. In Gaza they have smashed unions, uprooted secularism, enforced backward dress codes on women, created a one-party religious state. The Islamists’ revolution against the state and imperialism is both partial and – more to the point – against us (the left, the unions, women, religious minorities, LGBT people) too.
SWP: Yes but, as Harman also said, “On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combating racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, ‘with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never’”.
AWL: This is sloppy. If the fascists attack a mosque, for example, the socialist left will be with the Muslim self-defence. It might even be necessary to conclude a practical agreement with the Mosque leaders – even Islamists – to that end.
However, we are never ‘with the Islamists’ in politics or ideas.
And by the way Harman also wrote this: “But socialists cannot give support to the Islamists either. That would be to call for the swapping of one form of oppression for another, to react to the violence of the state by abandoning the defence of ethnic and religious minorities, women and gays, to collude in scapegoating that makes it possible for capitalist exploitation to continue unchecked providing it takes “Islamic” forms. It would be to abandon the goal of independent socialist politics, based on workers in struggle organising all the oppressed and exploited behind them, for a tail-ending of a petty bourgeois utopianism which cannot even succeed in its own terms.”
Even Harman was against what the SWP is saying now.