Last night (5 July) I leafleted outside the opening rally of Marxism 2012, the Socialist Workers' Party's annual summerschool. I was giving out a leaflet about the recent Egyptian presidential election, criticising the decision of the SWP and its Egyptian sister organisation, the Revolutionary Socialists, to call for a Muslim Brotherhood vote, and an advert for the AWL's fringe meeting this Sunday on the issue.
Most of the evening was spent in perfectly rational conversation, mainly with non-SWPers. But when I started leafleting I was treated to the typical SWP response to criticism: political slander.
It went something like this (I should say that the person who "argued" with me remained perfectly calm). I began leafleting a group of about six youngish blokes. One of them acted as their spokesperson.
SWPer (taking the leaflet): "Who's that from?"
Me: "Workers' Liberty"
SWPer (giving it back): "Ugh, I don't want that."
Me: "Why not?"
SWPer: "Because I don't want to read leaflets from Islamophobes."
Me: "Could you explain in what way we're Islamophobic? Because we oppose voting for the Muslim Brotherhood?"
No: "When Mubarak was overthrown, and you should have been celebrating, the headline on your paper talked about a Muslim counter-revolution."
In the 2 February edition of Solidarity, under a main headline "Egypt: support democratic revolution and workers' freedom", we added "No to Islamist counter-revolution! No to army takeover!" I hope the difference on a number of levels doesn't need explaining.
I didn't remember the front page exactly, but I had a rough idea of what it had said, and explained. I didn't get a response.
SWPer: "Yes, well it's part of your general approach. Look at the attitude you took to Yunus Baksh and Aaron Kiely."
Yunus Baksh is an SWP activist in Unison who has been witch-hunted by both his bosses and the union bureaucracy. Rather inconveniently for the SWPer in question, AWL members in Unison supported Yunus in his battle against them (though this is not the first time I've heard SWPers claim, with no evidence, that we didn't - this story is obviously being circulated). We have also raised criticisms of Yunus' behaviour in the movement. What on earth does that have to do with Islamophobia?
As for Labour councillor and NUS Black Students' Officer Aaron Kiely - who, unlike Yunus, is not from a Muslim background: it seems it's all the same to this particular SWPer! - the only thing this could reference is the AWL (and other student left-wingers') criticism of him for voting for cuts and praising the police during last year's riots (see here and here). Aside from what this has to do with Islamophobia, isn't the real disgrace that the SWP have refused to utter a word of criticism about this, because it would disrupt their alliance with Aaron's organisation Socialist Action in the student movement?
Again, I pointed out the obvious, and then went on:
Me: "Isn't the real issue here that your organisation advocated a vote for a right-wing, neoliberal, anti-working class religious party in the Egyptian elections? What do you think about that?"
SWPer: "We didn't advocate a vote for the Brotherhood."
Me: "Erm, you did -"
SWPer (cutting in): "No, it was the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt."
As well as being untrue - the SWP itself did call for a Muslim Brotherhood vote (see here) - this was a bit of a cowardly dodge. If you agree with the RS line, say so, defend it and explain why you agree. If you disagree, explain why you disagree, while also defending your sister organisation. Don't try to slough off responsibility, particularly when in fact the SWP took the same position!
I asked when it became the SWP position to vote for any bourgeois lesser evil (in this case, supposed lesser evil) in an election. After being asked if I advocated a vote for Mubarak-crony Shafiq - in response to which I indicated the banner on our leaflet "Neither Mursi nor Shafiq, but independent working-class politics" - the inevitable conclusion arrived, even though we had only been discussing for three or four minutes.
SWPer: "Sorry, I have better things to do. [While continuing to sit there.] There's no point in discussing this. I don't want to take your leaflet. Take it back."
Me: "Look, I try to give you a leaflet, to distribute ideas, and typically your immediate response is to call me a racist. The SWP obviously trains its people to do this -"
SWPer (cutting in and laughing): "Trains?"
Me: "Yes, trains. There's nothing wrong with training your comrades, it's what you train them to do that's the problem. Your default response to political criticism was to call me a racist."
SWPer: "I didn't say you were racist. I said your organisation was racist."
Me: "You still haven't explained why. Can you?"
SWPer: "I don't want to talk about it."
Me: "Ok, will you explain why it was right for workers to vote for the Brotherhood?"
SWPer: "No, I don't want to talk about it."
Later in the evening, I sat at a table with one of my comrades and a group of young people, mainly though not entirely members of the SWP. While we were sitting there, no one said anything about the AWL. When the two of us went out to get a beer, we returned to be told by an independent that the intervening ten minutes had been dominated by attacks on our organisation. And apparently after we finally left these attacks started again.
Conclusion: the SWP trains its members to really, really not like debate with other socialists, to go out of their way to avoid it and to substitute political slander. However, most SWPers are not very good at this.