The “IS tradition” and the birth of Respect - An open letter to an SWP leader

Submitted by Anon on 12 August, 2004 - 1:26

In the terminology of the Marxist movement, unprincipled cliques or groups have been characterised as political bandits. A classic example of such a group is the group known as “Lovestoneites”. This group, which took its name from the characterless adventurer who has been its leader, poisoned and corrupted the American Communist movement for many years by its unprincipled and unscrupulous factional struggles. The Lovestoneites were able and talented people, but they had no definite principles. They were wild-eyed radicals and ultraleftists when Zinoviev was at the head of the Comintern. With the downfall of Zinoviev and the violent right swing of the Comintern under Bukharin, they became ardent Bukharinites as quickly and calmly as one changes his shirt. Their politics was always determined for them by external pressure? The Lovestoneites never had any independent program of their own. They were never able to develop one.
James P Cannon

Dear comrade Harman,

I address this open letter to you because as far as I know you are the only member of the leadership of the old IS group in the central leadership of the SWP, and one of the things I want to discuss is the “IS tradition” in relation to the present politics of the SWP.

The Bible put it nicely with the rhetorical question: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul”?
What the writer had in mind was, of course, the supernatural “soul”, the part of us which, as religious people believe, will migrate to another world when our bodies die, to face judgement by a God who will, according to our desserts, let us join him in Paradise or condemn us to burn in the fires of Hell.

What I have in mind is another sort of soul, the political “soul”, the identity, personality, integrity, and raison d’etre of a political tendency; the combination of traits and purposes, means and methods that make it distinct, and which, taken together, make up its political personality.

[In the 2004 local government and European Parliamentary election] Where you got a good vote the difference was produced by the shameless communalism of your election campaign.

Not only did you cash in on Galloway’s special status with Muslims, you yourselves ran a communalist campaign, appealing to Muslims as Muslims to vote “Respect-Galloway” [the name on the ballot paper] because you were “the party that fought for Muslims”.

It would be rash in face of the long history of grotesque episodes which make up the history of Stalinism, and in face of more than one episode in the SWP’s own history, such as your 1999 support for Serbian geno-imperialism against “NATO”, to say that in the last 18 months you have done something unique. But what you have done is certainly extraordinary.

You moved into electoral politics in 2000. For decades you had defined electoral activity as inherently right-wing because, you said, it generated pressure on socialists to compromise and dilute their politics. You cited the Labour Party as proof.

When you turned to electoralism, the size of the SWP allowed you immediately to dominate the Socialist Alliance when you joined it in 2000. You controlled and shaped its performance in the 2001 general election.

The politics you imposed on the Socialist Alliance were tame advocacy of reform and sub reforms; the election literature you produced was very much routine, tired, stale, paint-by-numbers stock old-SWP agitation.

But still, it seems, you learned something from the 2001 experience — that the Socialist Alliance was “too left wing”!

As far as I know, you never put it like that. The evidence for it is in what you did next. Using your majority mechanically to enforce your policies, you liquidated the Socialist Alliance and formed Respect.

The only point now was votes. The point was to get you elected — and you trimmed your political sails to that goal.

You turned not to Muslim-background workers or Muslim-background radicals and leftists, but to the Muslim communities — all classes! Respect was “the party for Muslims” and George Galloway the chief “fighter for Muslims”. Getting votes was your only concern.

You formed or tried to form alliances with the present leaders of the Muslim communities and, more startlingly, with the religious “establishment” in those communities. You tried to continue your “war-time” alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB, a British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the authoritarian-religious organisation which in the Arab world is openly the equivalent of European clerical fascism of the 1930s and 40s, the Spanish Catholic clerical-fascists who clustered around Generalissimo Franco in the Spanish Civil War, or the Catholic Irish “Blueshirts” of the same period). You worked all-out to win MAB’s support for Respect.

You had already made MAB very prominent in the anti-war movement, and thus enhanced their visibility and status within the Islamic communities — at the expense of more “moderate” or secularising elements there. Above all, at the expense of elements of a labour movement that exist in those communities, and of those in them who want to be part of the British labour movement, and to lessen or destroy the influence of the imams and the mosques.

The Marxist attitude to such communities — as to all communities and nations, to both oppressor and oppressed nations — is to want to split them on class lines, not shore up their “unity” by allying with the petty bourgeois and bourgeois establishments there.

There are, of course, situations in which socialists would work with the establishment of Muslim communities — for example in organising physical defence against fascists. Even then, however, as much as possible, we would directly relate to the left and the working class in those communities, where the habit and tradition of deferring to elders, priests and rich people works organically and strongly against the self-separation out from them of the working class, of socialists, and of secularising young people.

But such a class approach would not in the short term have brought you large-scale results; nor would it have produced the large Muslim vote that would have allowed you to pole-vault yourselves into “big time” bourgeois institutional politics.

You promoted Galloway to those communities as a “fighter for Muslims”. (Indeed, whether you were fully conscious of it or not, you promoted Galloway to the Muslim electorate as an incipient convert to Islam, as one possessing the Islamic virtues of teetotalism, fervent belief in God, and belief that religion should be allowed to determine social rules on, for example, abortion.)

You did not seem to mind appearing thus to retrospectively endorse Galloway’s political history of the last 10 or a dozen years.

Isn’t all this disgraceful, Comrade Harman? Isn’t it akin to one of the numerous horror-stories out of the grim history of Stalinism which Trotskyists have been telling each other for 70 years?

And what if you had won seats on the basis of which you solicited votes — as “fighters for Muslims” etc.?

Lindsey German, with a bit more shamelessness in her appeals for Muslim votes, might just have won a seat in the London Assembly. What then? She would have been the sort of representative/spokesperson for Muslims which the one time career-left Labour MP Keith Vaz is? You may recall that when some Muslims demonstrated against Salman Rushdie and publicly burned his novel The Satanic Verses, Vaz supported calls for banning the book.

What if German was a London Assembly member and something like another Satanic Verses affair blew up? She would “be a fighter” for “Muslims” on that sort of question? Certainly she’d be under immense pressure to be exactly that. But she would then suddenly rediscover her socialist principles? The SWP would?

You would risk losing the position you had demeaned yourselves and the “socialism” you claim to represent to get, and refuse to be a “fighter for Muslims”?

Your record over recent years suggests that in such a crisis, you would not act as democrats, secularists or socialists. You would continue down the road you are on now.

In the midst of the US war in Afghanistan (in October 2001) Socialist Worker, which you edit, went so far as to try to explain and justify the Afghan Taliban regime’s foul and medieval treatment of women. They insisted on women wearing the burkha, SW explained, as a protection for women, against rape!

If the SWP had won a seat with Muslim votes, why wouldn’t you say that sort of thing on every question where your chief electoral support might expect “fighters for Muslims” to be representatives of Muslim opinion — which en masse is still very much shaped by the reactionary establishment of imams and the well-off members of the community?

In the recent elections, comrade Harman, there was one thing worse for the SWP than prostituting itself to win and yet failing to win even one seat. Actually winning on the basis of your “Muslim” campaign, would have been worse!

Like the man in the famous 1940s film "DOA" (Dead on Arrival), who is given a slow but irreversible poison, the SWP, as a socialist force, would have been DOA at the European Parliament or the London Assembly!

Only, in your case, you administered the poison to yourselves!

You justify yourselves on the need to fight “Islamophobia”. In fact the idea of “Islamophobia” is dangerous political cant. Of course we are for the people who are Muslims — as people, not as Muslims. Just as with, say, Irish Catholics in Britain in the past.

Advocating religious freedom, the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky insisted on coupling it with the demand for freedom of atheist propaganda. There is talk of making “incitement to religious hatred” a criminal offence in Britain. Vehement atheist repudiation and denunciation of religion might well then be subject to prosecution for “Islamophobia”. Where would the SWP stand?

Of course, socialists, democrats and rational people are “Islamophobes!? We are also “Christo-phobes”, “Judaism-o-phobes”, “Hindu-phobes” too. As many sort of “phobes” as there are religions — in the sense that we are actively hostile to all religion.

How can any Marxist not be actively hostile to the barbarous medievalist nonsense of Islam, which the establishment of the Muslim communities translates into restrictions on women, and with which it systematically poisons the young people?

Islam is considerably more vigorous right now than Catholicism or Judaism. Its grip on "its own” young people is very strong. Its power of resistance to assimilation is formidable. That people who call themselves Marxists could be other than hostile to the Islamic religion, that they should appeal to Muslim voters as Muslims for a “Muslim” vote, is simply astonishing!

It belongs in the same section of the museum of bizarre crimes committed by pseudo-socialists as French CP Secretary Maurice Thorez’s appeal in 1938 to “patriotic” French fascists to join them in a Popular Front against Nazi Germany!

It belongs in the same place as Gerry Healy’s WRP’s antics in the late 1970s and the 80s as apologist for such as Saddam Hussein and Colonel Ghaddaffi! (But then the SWP has in the last decades in many areas reprised much of the grotesque history of the Healy sect!)

One of two things: either Marxists can defend the people of the Muslim communities when they are targeted by racists — the BNP’s election broadcast was entirely devoted to identifying all immigrant Muslims in Britain with terrorism — while maintaining our own political and philosophical integrity and our own political identity.

Or, we commit political and philosophic suicide in the cause of defending not only Islamic people, but their world outlook too.

The SWP is well on the way to doing the latter. Isn’t this criminal, shameful?

But of course Marxists and socialists can defend Muslim people in Britain against racist and other reactionary hostility without smearing ourselves with noxious superstitions!

Didn’t we do that in the 1970s, when places like Whitechapel and the surrounding boroughs, and towns like Leicester were hot-beds of National Front fascism?

Socialists marched with and for the Bengalis targeted by the racists in the east end of London. For years every Sunday morning we confronted the fascist provocateurs against the immigrant people in Brick Lane. Didn’t we?

The fascists too agitated against “Islam”. Denunciation of the halal method of killing animals for food was one of their stock agitational points. And did it ever occur to any of us that we had to “defend Islam”, or explain away its vicious and nonsensical beliefs in order to defend the people targeted by the racists?

In any case, no socialists I ever heard of did that then. What is different?

Indeed, the SWP were so far then from your present attitude that at one point you thought taking the defenders of Brick Lane off to an ANL carnival more important than defending the people of Brick Lane from a big fascist march (and left it to people like ourselves to organise emergency defence)!

There is now an international polarisation, with America and its allies on one side and, until 2003, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and various Muslim forces and countries on the other.

You and others say that for the USA, etc., “Islam” has replaced the Stalinist bloc as the “threat” to “the west” and that something like the old “cold war” ? and recently hot war — is now being fought against “Islam”.

But, Chris, in the real cold war between Washington and Moscow-Beijing, your tendency took nothing like the attitude you have to Islam now!

You said “neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism” (picking it up from a front page headline in the “Shachtmanite” Labor Action). You did not publish articles explaining that Stalinism wasn’t so bad, really. You did the opposite, in fact.

Tony Cliff published three books on Russia, Eastern Europe and on China, that, though their theoretical framework was, in my opinion, wrong, assembled a mass of valuable facts and figures to show just how bad Stalinism really was.

The sort of apologetics you now make for all things Islamic, even the Taliban’s treatment of women, was, for Stalinism done by the soft liberal “left”, people who didn’t think anything was worth fighting for, and whose gut impulse was to accommodate to the power of Stalinism — and the likes of Isaac Deutscher and the sillier “Trotskyists”.

You scorned such an approach. You argued for the Third Camp of independent working class politics — against both “Washington and Moscow”. Cliff’s books told the truth. In my experience, you were often “on the ground” soft and accommodating to Stalinists (softer than some of us “orthodox” Trotskyists were, but I won’t pursue that here).

Why is your approach to political Islam now different? It can not be because political Islam is less reactionary than Stalinism was. If anything it is more reactionary; certainly it is not less.

The regime imposed on Iran by Khomeini’s “Islamic revolution” after 1979 destroyed the labour movement, the rights of women, the rights to free speech, free organisation, free sexuality. The authoritarian-Islamic regimes which your ally the Muslim Brotherhood (of which the MAB is an offshoot) advocate and promote, would do the same.

Academics make distinctions between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, and in certain respects the difference would be important. But for the labour movements it is the choice between the rope and the bullet. And you ally with these people! You defend them!

You were formed as a tendency on the political basis of refusing to go with most post-Trotsky “Trotskyists” into recognising the Stalinist post-1945 revolutions as progressive. Your alternative theories about “state capitalism” were, I think, as nonsensical as the theories of post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”. Politically, however, you were in general dead right.

As you may recall, I was never an admirer of “the IS tradition”. I believed it was eclectic and unstable — and there I wasn’t wrong! — and I found your attitude to the Lenin-Trotskyist tradition far too cavalier. Anything worthwhile in "the IS Tradition" came from the Shachtmanite Workers’ Party and International Socialist League. But, let me tell you, compared with the SWP now, “the IS tradition” seems to me to have been good Leninism!

You still pay lip service to the IS tradition, but you prostitute and betray it. You daren’t fight, in defence of it, the ignorant and politically demoraliswed scoundrels who lead your increasingly demented “party”.

Having resisted the tendency of “orthodox” post-Trotsky “Trotskyists” to succumb to the gravitational pull of the Stalinist “revolutions”, you now fall in behind the “Islamic revolutions”!

Your Islamophilic “practice” parallels that of the pseudo-Trotskyist Stalinophiles of old.

In your current politics, your current world outlook, everything is determined negatively, by your opposition to the USA — even to the extent of siding positively with the fascistic regional imperialist power Iraq! Comrade Harman, if you were to read that approach back on the past, you would have sided with the Stalinists!

You would have joined the apologists for Stalinism, like Deutscher, the Labour MP Kanni Zilliacus and the worst of the “Trotskyists”, insisting that there was a “good side” to Stalinism. And that in any case it had the right enemies — US imperialism.

If you were politically honest people, your current politics would compel you, for logic and consistency, to condemn your own tendency in its first 40 years!

Your negativism about the USA and Western Europe shapes your present world outlook. But in your old self-defining slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow”, there was a positive alternative, “international socialism”. You looked to the working class and to labour movements to provide an alternative to both Stalinism and capitalism. That is now gone.

“Neither Washington nor London, but Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad!”

“Neither Washington nor London, but the Taliban’s Kabul!”

“Neither Washington nor London, but Slobodan Milosevic’s Belgrade!”

These are the slogans with which you might, if you were candid, have summed up your politics at various points in the last seven years. What you did, I suggest, corresponded to these slogans.

Sean Matgamna

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