Debating in mysterious ways

Submitted by martin on 7 October, 2002 - 1:40

By Martin Thomas
The old slogan, "no bans and proscriptions", is making some headway on the left today. On the whole and on average, debate between different viewpoints on the left is more open, more civilised.

Last week, however, a meeting in Leeds saw a plunge back into the old habits, one that would be alarming were it not so bizarre.

It was a debate on "Marxism and Religion". A safe subject, you would think. Yet the speaker invited to represent the "militant atheist" point of view, Sean Matgamna, a writer for Solidarity, was excluded, and for strange reasons.

The meeting, on Friday 20 September, was organised by Father Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest at All Hallows, Leeds. Ray Gaston was a member of what is now the Socialist Party in the 1970s, and is now a member of the CPGB (Weekly Worker).

The debate had been planned for some time. Sean was invited to speak after he published an article on religion in Solidarity 3/9 (25 June), "The Prophet and the Demoralised Opportunists".

Just a few days before 21 September, one of the other speakers gave Ray Gaston an ultimatum. He would pull out unless Sean was excluded.

Apparently judging the ultimatum-giving speaker to be a "draw", and putting no high value on principles of free speech, open debate or resistance to blackmail, Ray Gaston decided on exclusion.

Then, however, he did not inform Sean Matgamna about the decision. Sean arrived at the meeting hall to be told: "I've withdrawn the invitation. We'll pay your fare".

Also in the hall were the other invited speakers and a small audience. John Bridge of the CPGB (WW) was there, called in by Ray Gaston as a substitute atheist speaker. Sean left, and the meeting continued.

Bizarre. Even more bizarre, the speaker who gave the ultimatum was not the one due to defend religion in the debate, Ken Leech, who is an Anglican priest from London with a long record as a socialist.

The proscriber, the excluder, the "no-platformer", was Mike Marqusee, who had been invited to present a middle position in the debate. (I'm not quite sure what that may be.)

Marqusee is a member of the Socialist Alliance and an "independent" ally of the SWP. His main activity now is in the Stop the War Coalition. Previously he was for many years political editor of Graham Bash's Labour-left monthly magazine Briefing.

His motive for seeking exclusion was nothing to do with the subject of the debate. He does not like our views on the Arab-Jewish conflict. Apparently he told Ray Gaston that he would not share a platform with Sean Matgamna because he, Marqusee, was "fed up of being called an anti-semite".

Was Marqusee over-reacting to some recent personal clash? No. Mike Marqusee and Sean Matgamna have never had a face-to-face argument about Israel - never even, within current memory anyway, been together in a meeting which debated Israel.

Mike Marqusee's only recent participation in debate on Israel with supporters of Solidarity was, so far as we know, in a Hackney Socialist Alliance meeting, where his adversary was not Sean Matgamna but Clive Bradley. The event passed off without any great personal hostility or conflict.

What exactly triggered Marqusee's ultimatum, just a few days before a long-planned meeting, remains obscure. But politically he was demanding - and being granted - a "no-platform" ban on anyone who holds our views on Israel.

We hold that to scapegoat "Zionists" as the Middle East's, or the world's, arch-imperialists and arch-racists, is to adopt a hostile stance towards that vast majority of Jews alive today who identify instinctively (though often critically) with Israel. It is a form of anti-semitism.

It is not, of course, the old racist anti-semitism, based on the idea that Jews are poisonous by virtue of inherited "racial" characteristics. It is more like the older Christian anti-semitism, which could rejoice over the odd Jew who converted just as today's radical anti-Zionism rejoices over the odd Jew who says Israel deserves to be destroyed. But it is anti-semitism.

Are we right or wrong? That can be decided only by debate. Those who want to banish debate by "no-platforming" advocates of our ideas - even from meetings on other subjects - show only that they have no confidence in their own ideas.

Even if there had been some personal clash, some exchange of angry words, Marqusee's response would be ridiculous (as we well know, having gone through the recent debates on the Afghan war and on Palestine being accused, repeatedly and personally, of being "Islamophobic", "racist", or "pro-war"...).

The circumstances are so odd as to make repetition unlikely. However, the left should note them down in its record-books. The prime villain of this piece is not the petulant, posturing, dim, and normally inconsequential Mike Marqusee, but the priest, Ray Gaston, who took the decision to enforce "no platform". Put not your trust in priests!

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