This article three in a four part series. To go back to the contents page click here
Sean Matgamna continues his article on "the last time we were heresy-hunted" with a survey of the labour movement organisations and individuals who backed the campaign against Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity) in 1983 by the Workers Revolutionary Party, then a high-profile, pseudo-Trotskyist organisation with a daily paper with some influence in the labour movement, Newsline.
In 1981 Vanessa Redgrave on behalf of the WRP sued Socialist Organiser— John Bloxam and Sean Matgamna — for comparing them to the Moonie sect and saying that they inflicted emotional, political and physical violence on vulnerable young people. That case would remain on the court lists without ever going to trial for four and a half years. It collapsed when the WRP imploded in late 1985.
After they sued him for libel Sean Matgamna had repeatedly said in Socialist Organiser that the WRP was taking Libyan and other Arab gold — including at one time Iraqi gold. They did not dare submit their accounts to the scrutiny that a libel action against him would, under the “disclosure” rules in such cases, involve for them. On that they did not sue.
In April 1983, the low-audience, Sunday evening BBC2 Money Programme carried an item on Libyan money and the WRP. Sean Matgamna wrote a review of it in Socialist Organiser. In response, the WRP launched a vigorous campaign in the labour movement — against the BBC and Socialist Organiser. For 50 issues of their daily paper they publicly solicited denunciations of the BBC, SO and Sean Matgamna. They held protest meetings all over the UK and got resolutions passed in labour movement branches. Over the two months, Newsline would carry statements of support for the WRP from one union conference, nine Trades Councils, 29 trade union branches or shop stewards’ committees and 214 individuals, many of them shop stewards or convenors.
Lambeth Trades Council passed an unanimous resolution denouncing the BBC and Socialist Organiser. “Organisations within the labour movement have a right to expect that when the class enemy attacks one section of the labour movement, the rest will close ranks in defence of the threatened organisation”.
Precisely! The point, which Socialist Organiser had made again and again, was that the employees of Gadaffi, Saddam Hussein and other such scoundrels were not part of the labour movement, but stooges of its organic bitter and bloody class enemies. One of the most prominent WRP leaders, Dr Cliff Slaughter, would soon, after the WRP’s implosion in 1985, go one better and call the dominant Healy-Redgrave group “fascists”.
Dennis Barry, former AUEW convenor at an engineering works used Newsline to address us directly: “Socialist Organiser, you have got your priorities wrong. The workers of the world have enough battles without fighting each other”.
Brian Pringle, the secretary of Leicester Trades Council, wrote: “Socialist Organiser is even more despicable than the BBC...”
Film producer Roy Battersby: “It is striking that... Socialist Organiser goes even further than the BBC in its provocation against the WRP”. SO’s article on the Money Programme had shown that it “is a group whose one role is to help the Thatcher state in trying to smash the proud political and technical independence of the working class and its vanguard party”.
2 April: Ron Brown, Labour MP for Leith, found the programme “shocking”. For him, it was even “worse to learn that Sean Matgamna of the Socialist Organiser has jumped on this reactionary bandwagon”.
From now on much of the comment was directed at me by name. Some of those making statements would demand that I “retract”.
Brown was a political idiot, but not, unlike most MPs, self-serving. He believed in Gadaffi. The Labour MP was the only testamentary — apart from WRP Secretary Mike Banda — to express positive belief in Gadaffi. (He also believed in the civilising mission of the Russians in Afghanistan, on which subject I had debated him on his home ground, at a very big, very unruly, and very pro-Russian meeting). “We can disagree with one or other aspect of [Gadaffi’s] policy, but in general he has given encouragement and support to left-wing movements all over the world”. But not in Libya!
Brown probably took it for granted that Gadaffi gave the WRP money. WRP members didn’t.
Steve Drury, “a lecturer in Earth Sciences” and ASTMS and AUT member. “Every penny results from the respect in which the paper and the WRP are held by many thousands of politically conscious people”.
Steve Cowan: “As a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party, I find Newsline invaluable... Sean Matgamna and his mistitled Socialist Organiser have nailed their flag firmly on to the reactionary mast...”
Les Harrison, a TGWU shop steward: “I want you to know that I am absolutely incensed after reading about the article in Socialist Organiser.
The two [the Money Programme and Socialist Organiser] absolutely complement each other”.
Ivor Demibo wrote that the Cumberland branch of UCATT “has condemned the BBC and Socialist Organiser”. “This branch recognises that an attack by the state and its media on any section of the labour movement threatens the whole working class and its organisations. We therefore condemn the article in Socialist Organiser... which joins in this despicable witch-hunt and call on the paper’s editors to unconditionally retract the article”. That sort of stuff was typical of resolutions where the WRP had strong direct influence.
But there was a much wider catchment. On 5 April a member of Plaid Cymru “defended the WRP”.
Mike Gill, acting chair of a TGWU branch, wrote that: “this was an attempt by the British ruling class in collaboration with international Zionism to discredit a good honest workers’ paper”.
On 6 April, Rich Lugg chair of the South East Airports committee of the TGWU: “As far as I am concerned a measure of Newsline’s correctness was the attack launched by the BBC on behalf of the Zionists and big business”.
George Downing of NUPE wrote that: “Socialist Organiser should be condemned for their disgraceful breaking of the United Front”.
In some of these statements you can see the word “Jewish” through the very thin cover given to it by “Zionist”.
The WRP had by now announced a “meeting against the witch-hunt” at Conway Hall, in London, to denounce the BBC and Socialist Organiser. An ad for it occupied the top right corner of every Newsline front page.
Tom Kempinksi honed his words: “No one buys us. No one, gentlemen, because principle cannot be bought. We are the proud, independent WRP, and we march under the banner of Karl Marx”.
That sort of thing captured the underlying tragedy of it. Most WRP members were people who thought their leaders were honest communists, because they themselves were.
They rationalised from that, and really believed things like Kempinski’s credo here. A good credo, honoured only in the breach by the WRP.
I wrote in SO on 14 April:
“Newsline has continued in its ridiculous campaign of bluff and bluster against the BBC Money Programme…
“Much of the denunciation of SO is extremely shrill and hysterical, lynch mob stuff. It is also extremely sad. People write expressing their faith in the charlatans who put out Newsline.
Letter after letter testifies to real sacrifices and devotion. People who couldnt’ possibly know the secrets of the autocratic and conspiratorial leaders of the organisation write to testify from their own experience of struggling to raise money for the paper that it could have no financial link with Libya. Playwright Tom Kempinski writes in ringing tones, ‘We are not bought’ — rhetoric that rings pathetic and false in the circumstances.
“As false as have always been the hopes and wishes of the many fine revolutionaries who have devoted themselves to Healy’s ‘machine for maiming militants.’”
The WRP got knocked back sometimes, of course, as when the National Union of Teachers conference refused to debate the issue.
“Anti Zionism” had been central to the campaign against the BBC and SO. From now on it would take off into the realms of political lunacy.
On 9 April Newsline gave the whole centre page to “the witch-hunt”. The paper included the craziest of all the things they published at that time, an editorial asserting that there was a Zionist conspiracy stretching from Socialist Organiser, through Thatcher’s Cabinet, all the way to Reagan’s White House. (See copy of that editorial here.)
Across the page from that editorial, Ken Livingstone gave his tribute to his benefactor the WRP. He was then leader of the Greater London Councl and joint nominal editor of Labour Herald (the WRP provided the real editor, WRP Central Committee member Steven Miller, and printed the paper).
This was the once-Red Ken in crank mode.
“The Money Programme attack on Newsline, Labour Herald, and [George Galloway’s] Dundee Standard was gutter journalism... smear techniques used... against the labour movement press”.
Livingstone “value[d] support to the struggles [?] of the GLC by the Newsline...” “There is certainly a case for suspecting the hand of the forces opposed to the Palestinians. The Zionists were particularly upset by the role the Labour Herald played in winning the Labour Party to an official policy of support for the recognition of the PLO. The fact that smears about me appear on a fairly regular basis suggests this. Agents of the Begin [Israeli] government are active in the British labour movement and press [Socialist Organiser?] at present...
“It is important when these kinds of attacks are made that the labour movement stands united and fights back as one”.
It is improbable that Livingstone would believe the WRP denials on “Libyan gold”. He certainly knew that his Labour Herald benefited from the tiny WRP’s mysterious wealth.
For SO too this editorial marked a new stage in the conflict. The absess was open. Only those who didn’t want to see, or smell, could ignore Newsline’s lurch into Nazi-like “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” ravings.
I responded in SO (14 April) with an article, “Gerry Healy Discovers the World Jewish Conspiracy”, and a reprint of the Newsline editorial.
“Newline’s editorial uses the code word “Zionist”, but in fact it is talking about a conspiracy of Jews which runs, they say, from the centre of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, to the commanding heights of the BBC, all the way through to Socialist Organiser. If a Jew becomes “the youngest-ever chairman” of the BBC, what else can it be but a “Zionist” conspiracy.
“Pre-World War Two anti-semites explained communism and finance capital alike as different aspects of a single World Jewish Conspiracy. So now do these petro-dollar anti-Zionists of Newsline depict “the centre of Thatcher’s government and Socialist Organiser as secretly linked and bonded — despite ocean-wide class and political differences — by a hidden network of Zionists.
“Zionism” here is not a political reference meaning those who support the right of Israel, or a modified Israel, to exist. That would include the overwhelming majority of the people of Britain.
“There are Zionists and Zionists. There are Zionists and Jews. It is the latter who are the conspirators. Even an anti-Zionist Jew, this racist logic says, will have ineradicable loyalties and allegiances more basic than politics: some people are congenital “Zionists”.
“Gerry Healy in his dotage seems to have rediscovered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that forgery of the Tsarist political police, which became a warrant for genocide against the Jews of Europe. Newsline in effect describes Jews as agents of ‘Zionist imperialism’ — which must be the very heart of imperialism if, as they say, its controlling tentacles reach secretly right into “the centre” of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet.
“How can the mutant remnants of what was once the most serious revolutionary organisation in Britain have come to this?
“The WRP sees the world mainly in terms of police “conspiracies” and the operations of “agents” and counter-agents.
“Add to this paranoid obsession Mr Healy’s present “cupboard love” politics which puts Zionism and anti-Zionism at the centre of world politics — because to judge by all the circumstantial evidence, Libyan gold is at the centre of the WRP’s survival — and the scenario more or less writes itself. The inbuilt logic of such “politics” takes over and takes off.
“It easily becomes a matter of Jews — “Zionists” — against all the rest.
“The racist logic breaks through in their account of the Money Programme’s “witch hunt”. Why is this the work of “Zionists”? Because a Jew is appointed chairman of the BBC? Because only “Zionists” are concerned with the Middle East? Because the Jewish Chronicle showed interest in an expose of people it must regard as at least potential pogromists. Of course, if the Jewish Chronicle was tipped off in advance, that is proof positive that “Zionists” were in control!
“Faced with an earlier left wing flirtation with anti-semitism dressed up as anti-capitalism [the German socialist] August Babel said that: “anti-semitism is the socialism of idiots”. WRP-style anti-Zionism is the anti-imperialism of idiots. And it is indistinguishable from anti-semitism.
“All Jews other than certain religious anti-Zionists and some revolutionary socialists do support Israel — that is, they are Zionists.
“They are a people scattered through all segments of society. Seek evidence that there may be a conspiratorial network of Jews and you will find it — red Jews and Rothschilds, members of Mrs Thatcher’s (or Ronald Regan’s) cabinet and writers for SO. These links are the raw material from which theories about “Zionist conspiracy” can easily be spun.
“But the only possible “rational” common denominator on which to base such a theory is “race” (whatever that may be).
“Morally outraged by Israel — and rightly outraged — the more emotional or “third wordlist” left in Britain has sometimes tried to brand all Zionists, that is, the vast majority of Jews, as racists, and (especially during the ultra-left heyday of the early 70s) proposed to treat them accordingly. The slogan “drive the Zionists out of the labour movement” has been raised — it can only mean: drive the Jews out of the labour movement.
“There is simply no way that this sort of anti-Zionism can avoid shading over — despite the best “anti-racist” intentions — into anti-semitism.
Even if it were true that Jews who support Israel are racists, the evil consequences of left wing anti-semitism would far outweigh any help it would give the oppressed Palestinians. But in fact it is hysterical and stupid to think that all Jews who support Israel are racists.
“Idiotic attempts to treat them all as part of a “Zionist conspiracy” can only convince Jews that in parallel to what they see as the Arab threat to wipe out the Jews of Palestine, those in Britain who talk of justice for the Palestinian Arabs are a crowd of loony future pogromists. And that won’t help the Palestinian Arabs either.
“The state of the left on this question is indicated by the fact that Ken Livingston in the same issue of Newsline chattily adds his support to the idea that the Money Programme expose on the WRP was a Zionist plot. He hadn’t then read the anti-semitic editorial printed on the opposite page.
“What does he think of the editorial? Does he think we should just shrug and accept anti-semitism as a feature of the far left?
“Perhaps what the Ayatollah Healy has discovered in his political dotage is not the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” but the last will and testament of Joseph Stalin, who during his last years infected much of the Stalinist and quasi Stalinist left with his own ingrained anti-semitism. At the time of his death in 1953 Stalin had set the stage for a purge trial of five “Jewish doctors” from the Kremlin’s own hospital accused of plots, poisonings etc.
“It was to have been the signal for a final act in the vast anti-Jewish campaign, legitimised as “anti-Zionism” which had raged in most of Eastern Europe and the USSR since 1948 — which for example, was a prominent feature of purge trial like that of Rudolf Slansky in Czechoslovakia in 1952. The trial of the doctors would have been the signal for the mass deportation of the USSR’s Jews — and possibly for their annihilation.
“Stalin’s successors cancelled the trial, but anti-semitism remains rampant in the Stalinist states.
When the WRP (then SLL) went Maoist for a year back in 1967 Mr Banda, now the WRP General Secretary, wrote that they would “march” even under the portrait of Stalin. Once again he is “marching” under the portrait of Stalin.
“He won’t write about it, but he is also uncomfortably close to marching under the portrait of Adolf Hitler“.
Livingstone wouldn’t have seen the editorial before he made the comments that seemed to endorse it and give it credibility. He ignored Socialist Organiser’s request that he say where he stood on it, thus maintaining his solidarity with the mad editorial and those who published it.
Livingstone and other “left Labour” people played an irreplaceable role in the WRP’s campaign. They helped give it a credibility it would not otherwise have had, way outside the influence its own comparatively small numbers gave it.
A lot of people in the labour movement knew the WRP, and had long known that what Socialist Organiser said about the Libyan gold was probably true. Yet the instinct to back even the WRP “against the state and the BBC” rallied people to them. The backing of the Livingstones helped discredit what Socialist Organiser said and helped the WRP get off the hook by turning the issue into a small referendum for or against “Thatcher’s state and its media”.
Livingstone was at this time trying to displace Reg Freeson as Labour candidate in Brent East. (He would win the seat in 1987). Freeson was Jewish. Denunciations of “the Zionist Reg Freeson” occupied much space in Newsline. Re-reading that stuff now what strikes me is that the sense of these denunciations of the Labour right winger Freeson — SO supported Livingstone against him —would better be conveyed by “the Jew Freeson”. SO, most of whose supporters had the same formal position on the Arab-Jewish conflict as Livingstone or the WRP, “a secular democratic state” (a tiny minority only of us were for a two state solution, and a much bigger minority rabidly “anti-Zionist”, the people who lead the ISG now) — SO did not comment on this aspect of the anti-Freeson campaign.
On 11 April, Alex McLarty, a long-time WRP militant in Glasgow, someone for whom those of us who had encountered him had some personal respect, wrote:
“One just can’t be a socialist and a supporter of the witch-hunt at the same time. The thing is impossible. Who is this character [Sean Matgamna] operating within [his emphasis] the labour movement, speaking on various platforms and on various subjects? Stripped of socialist verbiage, just what is his game? Just what is the role of Socialist Organiser?... Trade unionists! Members of the labour movement! Be warned! Depending on its substance, a small dose of poison can do a lot of harm. What is the substance of Matgamna and ‘Socialist Organiser’? We know enough now. Time will tell even more!”
This is a good illustration of the mental world of a serious old Trotskyist militant who had come that far with Healy. I remembered McLarty 22 years earlier as the only person at an SLL [proto-WRP] annual conference to - vainly — try to get a real discussion about a contentious issue (Castro’s Cuba).
Richard Price, who is still politically alive, typically missed the point with an analogy between SO’s call for a labour movement inquiry into the WRP and the evasive call made in the 1930s by Fenner Brockway, secretary of the Independent Labour Party, for an inquiry into the Trotskyists at the time of the Moscow Trials — this call for a labour movement enquiry had in fact first been made two years earlier when they sued us. Prominent labour movement people who had then put their name to it included… Ken Livingstone (before he allied with the WRP)!
The “Newsline sellers” of Belfast made a collective statement: “Newsline readers, Republicans and activists will be politically incensed by the article in Socialist Organiser which openly supports the BBC slander and especially by the hatefilled remarks of a revisionist called Matgamna who tries to pour scorn on the security arrangements” of the WRP.
On 14 April John Biggs-Davidson, Tory, and David Ennals, Labour, raised the BBC allegations in Parliament. It was new wind in the WRP campaign’s sails.
Dave Douglass, a miner and one-time Posadist, wrote an open letter denouncing Socialist Organiser.
Ex-BBC Controller Stuart Hood, who - it seems - had long held private and platonic “Trotskyist” opinions, and, I guess, must at some time have been a member of the Healy organisation, waded in for the WRP. So did Gerry Caughey, secretary of St Helens Labour Party.
By now the WRP was holding “broad” labour movement meetings on the issue all over the country. Denunciation of Socialist Organiser was a big feature of all these meetings, to go by Newsline’s reports and those of SO supporters who attended them. In Liverpool, Michael Banda of the WRP spoke beside Bobby Owens, chair of District 6 of the TGWU, Bill Kerrigan, chair of the National Union of Seamen North West Panel, and a Labour councillor.
Dave Thompson, AUEW convenor at Vauxhall Motors Ellesmere Port, threw in his weight against “the witch-hunt”, together with other trade union office-holders there.
As well as the daily page of testimonials, there was additional coverage. On 15 April a middle-page spread: “Socialist Organiser has capitulated to the Tory class enemy by supporting the 20 March programme on BBC2. That is why they are now in the company of such ultra-Tory MPs as John Biggs-Davidson”.
16 April: Ted Knight Labour leader of Lambeth Council and a Healyite for thirty years, declared: “The article in Socialist Organiser endorsing the witch-hunt and the Money Programme is outrageous”. For “Red Ted” too, it was “the Zionists”. “The Zionists have not forgiven the Labour Party and TUC resolutions last year which recognised the PLO”.
The eminent thespian, Sir Timothy West, wrote a long statement of support against the BBC. His was the sole contribution that, gently, distanced itself from the WRP’s pro-Gadaffi politics. He did not attack Socialist Organiser.
On 20 April four Socialist Organiser people — Mick O’Sullivan, Pete Firmin, Jane Ashworth and I — turned up at the WRP’s central “anti-witch-hunt” meeting at Conway Hall, in London, to give them an argument. They wouldn’t let us in!
Of the billed speakers only Peter Tatchell, then a Labour Party PPC, showed any concern at our exclusion from a meeting that would be largely given over to denouncing us; but he too took his place on the platform.
“Red Ken” and “Red Ted” and others joined WRP General Secretary Mike Banda on the platform to listen to him praise his paymaster Colonel Gadaffi, and Libya. Gadaffi, he said “has become the symbol of the struggle for national liberation… .” Libya was he said, like a watermelon: Islamic green on the outside, but red inside!
We gave out a leaflet reiterating our stance to whoever would take one. A photograph of us doing that would henceforth be a feature of the press campaign against us.
Ted Knight said “When Socialist Organiser endorses the propaganda and continues to spread its lies, they are working alongside the class enemy and place themselves outside of the labour movement… if they persist in their attack and persist in their defence of the BBC, then frankly we have got to direct our resources, too,
against those who aid and abet the class enemy.”
We should not “defend” the BBC for saying some of what we’d been saying for years? No! For “the revolutionary party”, the self-proclaimed and self-annointed “revolutionary leadership”, is the measure of all things, amen…
Michael Banda said, “We will expose these people for the charlatans and slanderers that they are”.
The Conway Hall meeting — they claimed it was 700 strong — including the platform speakers, “unanimously” passed a three point resolution.
It included: “We condemn the weekly SO for repeating and extending the BBC slander and call upon SO readers to demand that its slanders are retracted unconditionally.”
This formula of “retraction” in fact had nothing to do with alleged BBC “witch hunt” and everything to do with the campaign to discredit SO. It spilled over into the public domain from the WRP’s internal practice, in which a member showing any independence could be confronted, humiliated and degraded at a moment’s notice with arbitrary demands from the leadership to “retract” or “apologise” to the meeting” for
something or other (like being five minutes late).
The meeting “unanimously” “denounced” the BBC Money Programme “as a state-organised and Zionist influenced witch-hunt”.
The audience at Conway Hall and the platform speakers (they included the theatre producer Thelma Holt) who voted for this stuff present in themselves a terrible picture of the state of at least part of the left then. They knew what they were against but had only a vague idea of what they were for. That condition has since spread to sections of the left who were then relatively free of it, notably the SWP.
On 22 April Nupe Branch Secretary Frances Fallon’s testimony was headlined “They try to silence the voice of the masses.” If you thought about what Gadaffi and Khomeni — the WRP supported the Iranian Islamic regime — and Saddam Hussein did to the “masses” with the WRP’s vocal support, you saw the tragic political confusion of those who sincerely “defended” the WRP in such terms.
On 23 April Bill Bowring, Lambeth councillor, practising barrister, former WRP member and a future secretary of the Socialist Lawyer’s Association argued “So called ‘left’ newspapers which crawl through the same sewers as the Money Programme, thereby condemn themselves…”
My response (SO 14 April 1983) to the blatant anti-semitism of the editorial about SO’s “Zionist” conspiracy with members of Reagan’s government and Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet was petrol on the fire! Charlie Pottins, long-time WRPer, one-time Zionist, and member of the Jewish Socialist Group, wrote an indignant rebuttal of this article over three pages of Newsline, which ignored all the important points.
This would be the centre-piece of a pamphlet which they now produced.
• To be continued