When Marxists Fall Out; or, In Defence of Sean Matgamna

Submitted by martin on 10 September, 2008 - 1:52 Author: Philip Bounds

The article is from "Fifth-Estate-Online - International Journal of Radical Mass Media Criticism". The author is not a member, sympathiser or supporter of the AWL

The radical left has suffered many defeats since the 1970s but its literary output remains prolific. In Britain alone there are still more than thirty newspapers, magazines and journals which describe themselves as Marxist. Many of these publications are wholly indispensable and unutterably irritating at one and the same time.

While titles such as Socialist Worker, Socialist Appeal and Workers Power do sterling work in challenging the market orthodoxies of the age, their sectarianism can often be hair-raising. All too often they lapse into the boorish, self-regarding and ugly argot that Lenin tended to favour, spending more time attacking their opponents on the left than in spelling out the socialist case in appealing language. It is little wonder that their circulation among 'ordinary workers' is next to nothing.

This is not to say that sectarianism's writ runs everywhere. Several newspapers in Britain make at least a token effort to foster meaningful debate between the various sections of the left. Among the most interesting are Solidarity and the Weekly Worker, the former published by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL) and the latter by a small but energetic fronde of activists who are trying to 'reforge' the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The great virtue of these papers is that they take ideas seriously. By no means immune from ultra-left posturing, they generally resist the assumption that anyone who disagrees with them is a class traitor, a Blairite stooge or a capitalist lackey. Regular contributors such as Sean Matgamna, Paul Hampton and Chris Ford (Solidarity) and Jack Conrad, Mark Fischer and Peter Manson (Weekly Worker) have a talent for engaging carefully and accurately with ideas other than their own. Their instinct is to identify common ground where it exists and to eschew vulgar abuse where it doesn't.

This commitment to open debate makes the events of the past few weeks all the more regrettable. Towards the end of July the two papers were plunged into a nasty little war in which Solidarity came out rather better than the Weekly Worker. (I write as someone who supports neither the AWL nor the CPGB but who admires the libertarian spirit of both organisations.) Fratricidal wars between sections of the Marxist left are scarcely thin on the ground, nor do many people find them interesting. However, this one is well worth examining because it tells us a great deal about the limitations of contemporary socialist journalism.

Hostilities began when Sean Matgamna, the AWL's most prominent member, published an article entitled "What if Israel Bombs Iran?" in issue 136 of Solidarity. Matgamna has a well-deserved reputation for challenging the anti-Zionist hysteria of what he calls the 'kitsch left', and his article took a refreshingly undogmatic approach to the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat. In no sense did it endorse the idea that Israel should launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Recognising that Israel might well resort to force if the mullahs come close to getting the bomb, Matgamna acknowledged that any such attack would probably 'lead to great carnage in the Middle East', 'strengthen the Iranian regime' and 'throw Iraq back into the worst chaos'. Nevertheless, he refused to accept that Israel has no justification for adopting a bellicose stance. Pointing out that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's thuggish and hardline President, has openly spoken of his desire to see the 'Zionist regime' wiped off the map, Matgamna bravely concluded that 'there is good reason for Israel to make a precipitate strike at Iranian nuclear capacity'. Moreover, he strongly implied that the left would have no obvious reason to condemn Israel (or at least to condemn it unequivocally) in the event of a war breaking out. The politics of 'duff anti-imperialism' are no longer enough.

As might have been expected, Matgamna's intervention provoked an orgy of heresy hunting on certain sections of the left. The most disproportionate response of all occurred in issue 732 of the Weekly Worker, which devoted no fewer than four of its twelve pages to an attack on Matgamna's 'terrible article'. Yassamine Mather, Ben Lewis, Mark Fischer and James Turley all vented their spleen. The paper's cover depicted an elongated mushroom cloud above the statement 'AWL's Sean Matgamna: excusing an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran'. By contrast, an article on the Scottish left's performance in the Glasgow East by-election was relegated to the back page.

Mather, Lewis, Fischer and Turley made no pretence of being interested in an even-tempered debate. Their demand was that Matgamna should be excommunicated from the left for high ideological crimes. 'After his article in Solidarity of July 24', wrote Fischer and Turley in a demolition job extending over 2500 words, 'it should be axiomatic that Sean Matgamna - the loose-cannon patriarch of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - be expelled from that organisation'. It turned out that Matgamna's most unforgivable mistake was to have taken the threat from Iran seriously. Drunk on Zionist rhetoric and deficient in his understanding of imperialism, he failed to recognise that Ahmadinejad's talk of wiping Israel off the map was nothing but bluff. The good news is that the Iranian theocracy will 'not attack Israel unprovoked', on the grounds that to do so would be 'suicide'. In the final analysis, or so the argument went, Iran is a comparatively pacific state whose integration into the imperialist world system has long since imbued it with a taste for Realpolitik. To think otherwise is to surrender to Western (or Zionist) distortions of the most contemptible kind.

It was all rather sad. Here was one of the better socialist newspapers, intelligent, wide-ranging and open-minded, setting about its opponents like a Maoist lynch mob. Yet the whole episode was also curiously instructive. By taking their attack on Matgamna to such apoplectic extremes, Fischer, Turley, Mather and Lewis threw considerable light on the political weaknesses which still prevent the socialist left from developing a genuinely democratic culture. It is worth spelling these out in some detail.

Take the problem of dogma. One of the signature characteristics of the hard left is its tireless habit of thinking issues through from first principles. The party line on everything from climate change, globalisation and free trade through to constitutional reform and the rights of sexual minorities has to be rigorously debated, translated into earnest resolutions and defended unconditionally in public. Usually this is a good thing, ensuring that the policies of at least part of the left go beyond mere pragmatism. The problems only arise when the party line diverges too dramatically from what is happening in the real world. Having spent so much time working out what they stand for, socialist parties have a fatal tendency to make the defence of unrealistic policies a test of political virtue. Anyone who dares to challenge the consensus is dismissed as a traitor by definition. The scenario could almost be described in the language of psychoanalysis. Knowing at some level of his mind that his ideas are bankrupt, the self-deluding socialist treats his critics like a nightmarish irruption from the political unconscious. Only a descent into hysteria can insulate him from the truth.

This is the true meaning of the Matgamna affair. Like many other socialist publications, the Weekly Worker has spent much of its time since 9/11 weaving a seductive myth about Islamic fundamentalism. Intent on opposing 'imperialist' interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (not in itself a dishonourable position), it has tried to pretend that Islamofascism poses less of a threat to civilised life than mature democracies like Israel, the USA and Britain. Acts of mass murder in New York, London, Madrid or Bali have effectively been described (though admittedly not defended) as the lurid symptoms of monopoly capitalism in decline. George Bush and 'Bomber Blair' have been castigated more often than Osama bin Laden. Iran and Syria have been seen as a threat to no one except their own people, in spite of the fact that they are already waging war against Israel through the medium of their barbarous allies in Hezbollah. Not even the most insular activist can sustain this sort of thing for too long. In the dead of the night, temporarily freed from the chains of orthodoxy, he must surely glimpse the horrible truth: The party line is built on sand. When Matgamna had the temerity to point out that democratic societies have a right to defend themselves against theocratic tyrannies, he reduced his critics to hysteria by telling them what they already knew.

Another symptom of the Weekly Worker's political desperation was the alacrity with which it reverted to Stalinist modes of reportage. In spite of its reputation for communicating clearly and fairly, there was nothing in its coverage of Matgamna's article that would have been out of place in a Pravda editorial in 1937. For one thing the language was brutally coarse and dehumanising. Endless Manichean utterances were freighted with references to 'moronic viewpoint[s]', 'frothing extremes' and 'oafish henchmen'. Nor was outright lying considered beyond the pale. At no point did Matgamna mention Israel's nuclear arsenal, but everyone on the Weekly Worker took it for granted that he was slavering for an immediate nuclear strike on Iran. More disturbing still was the slyly sectarian attempt, straight out of the Soviet handbook, to blur the distinction between core political principles and matters of second-order importance. It ought to be self-evident that the left can accommodate a range of opinions about the relationship between Israel and Iran. Standing up for Israel is no more a betrayal of the socialist vision than defending the sovereignty of Muslim states. These are matters on which reasonable people can agree to disagree. By portraying the 'right line' on the conflict between two regional powers as an index of socialist virtue, the Weekly Worker was needlessly burdening the left with yet another reason to turn on itself. 'Unless you agree with every dot and comma of our programme', or so it seemed to say, 'we reserve the right to expel you from the movement'. So much for socialist unity.

No doubt the row will blow over soon enough. The Weekly Worker will recover from its temper tantrum and Solidarity will continue to publish articles that defy the leftier-than-thou consensus. Yet something tells me that the small number of people who care about the socialist press will remember the attack on Matgamna for quite some time. Those of us whose politics were shaped by the Marxist tradition (and who still have faith in its capacity to change the world) had better make sure that old habits cease to die hard. If we want an open, lively and popular socialist press, we will need to ensure that our inner Stalin is kept firmly under control. Sean Matgamna seems to have learned that lesson rather better than some of his critics.

Sean Matgamna


Submitted by Jason on Wed, 10/09/2008 - 22:27

that Sean published a crass offensive piece refusing to condemn an Israeli attack on innocent Iranian workers who not only having to fight their own repressive government are being targeted by imperialism as well and this has been defended again and again by various members of the AWL.

The Weekly Worker ran an over the top headline with seriously misleading picture- but that's their style as anyone who reads it knows.

However, anyone who disagrees with the AWL is subject to a barrage of insults. Israel is not a democratic society- it oppresses and excludes the Palestinians. To defend this racist state is not something tnta socialsits or even democrats shoudl do. We should be for a democratic secular state with equal rights for all natioanlisties- pretty basic really. Semingly beyond Sean though and his defenders.

Submitted by paulm on Wed, 10/09/2008 - 22:41

In reply to by Jason

Hopefully Bill will be along in a minute to join in....

Jason, please stop.

Submitted by sacha on Wed, 10/09/2008 - 23:07

Hi Jason,

Just to say, firstly, that Mikey Mikey is not a member of the AWL. And secondly, that your depiction of anyone who disagrees with the AWL receiving a barrage of insults is really pretty far from reality.

You might disagree with Sean's piece, but the fact you find it offensive is neither here nor there. You need to engage with whether it was right or not. In fact you don't do that.

Which members of the AWL have "defended Iranian workers workers being targeted by imperialism again and again" (I paraphrase, but not very much)? Or at all? And where was an attack on Iranian workers discussed? In 1990 Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor with no casualties; last year it destroyed a Syrian one with very few. Were these really attacks on Iraqi and Syrian workers? There is good reason to believe that the consequences of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be much worse - one of a number of reaons I, and the whole AWL, oppose such an attack - but you are substituting demagogic phrases for analysis.

This relates to the question of "condemnation". Do you condemn the destruction of the Syrian reactor last year? Really? If Israel destroyed Iran's nuclear facilities and the casualties and consequences were similar to those in Syria, would you really condemn it? The point is that it is perfectly possible to oppose an attack now - not just because we judge the consequences would be a lot worse in this case, but because of what Israel is, because of what it may use the attack as an opportunity to do etc etc - without committing yourself to "condemning" after the fact when you don't yet know what the consequences will be. Anything else is just phrase-mongering.

I don't think Sean's article is particularly clear, or well-written. But it was written as an article opposed to an attack on Iran! Because Sean does...

The Palestine stuff is getting boring. Israel is a capitalist state; yes, as socialists we know that means it's not really democratic. Yes, furthermore, it discriminates against its Arab and other non-Jewish citizens in all kinds of ways; as socialists, we oppose that. Yes, it acts as colonial oppressor of the Palestinians and wants to dominate Lebanon etc; guess what, as socialists we also oppose that. Why does that mean denying the real elements of bourgeois democracy that exists in Israel? Is ignoring reality in favour of black-and-white caricature a sign of revolutionary virtue?

Submitted by Pete on Thu, 11/09/2008 - 07:42


"The Weekly Worker ran an over the top headline with seriously misleading picture- but that's their style as anyone who reads it knows."
Bloody hell! The Sun is an anti-union racist rag - a "style" we also know. So we are not allowed to criticise those that go along with its lying witch-hunting either?

Submitted by Jason on Thu, 11/09/2008 - 15:52

Sacha, I did engage with why we should oppose Sean's argument to not condemn an attack on Iran, a number of times in response to the original article. Whether I find Sean’s article offensive or not may be neither here nor there but I think Iranian exiles fighting the Iranian regime and racism in this country will find it quite offensive to not condemn an attack on Iranian workers and perhaps that should not be dismissed.

I know you acknowledge the oppression of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine- you have said so before. Good. But I was objecting to the phrase in this article- which is by a member of the AWL- "mature democracies like Israel". That is why it is relevant to point t out the systematic racist oppression of Palestinians. I'm sorry you find that 'boring'- perhaps not quire as boring or demeaning as day in day out oppression, though.

Pete I quite agree with your right to criticise the Weekly Worker. I just thought the tone of outrage and surprise a little excessive. If The Sun publish a racist article on asylum seekers we should condemn it, may be even picket their offices. But it would be strange to express surprise.

MikeyMike you are right it is good to encourage debate and not a lot of the left do (PR being another exception as it happens). However, it is therefore ironic that PaulM who is a member of the AWL has asked me to 'stop'.

Submitted by paulm on Thu, 11/09/2008 - 19:16

In reply to by Jason

I'm not an AWL member, although I was quite some time ago, for some time.

Submitted by sacha on Fri, 12/09/2008 - 12:29

Hi again Jason,

"An attack on Iranian workers": phrases such as these blur over the concrete reality of what is, or might be, involved. It is very likely that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will, in a number of ways, damage and act against the interests of the Iranian working class (and the working-class across the Middle East, but of course the Iranians are at the sharp end); which is why we should oppose an attack. But do you think - you don't answer the question - that the Israeli destruction of the reactors in Iraq and Syria constituted a blow against the Iraqi and Syrian working classes? Really? You imply that what is involved is the bombing of cities, but that is simply not the case.

Even if one doesn't accept the claim that Israel would have to create a nuclear catastrophe in order to destroy Iran's programme, there is good reason to suppose that in this case the consequences of an attack would be much worse - strengthening further the reasons for opposing it. But you don't seem interested in grappling with the reality of what could be involved. Instead you use phrases like "attack on Iranian workers" and "condemn" in order to generate hysteria. Strangely, though, you don't seem to feel anything like the same alarm at the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon which could well be used to obliterate Israeli cities; indeed your organisation support the "right" of Iran to acquire a bomb.

I'm afraid you misunderstood about this article; it's not by a member of the AWL at all, but some sort of leftish liberal who has nothing to do with us.

I don't find highlighting the systematic oppression of the Palestinians boring at all; in fact I do quite a bit of it myself. What I am starting to find boring is the claim or implication that support for the demand of two states means justifying that oppression. But I accept that your comments were in part motivated by the misapprehension that this article is by an AWL member. I, and the whole AWL I hope, would stand by this:

"Israel is a capitalist state; yes, as socialists we know that means it's not really democratic. Yes, furthermore, it discriminates against its Arab and other non-Jewish citizens in all kinds of ways; as socialists, we oppose that. Yes, it acts as colonial oppressor of the Palestinians and wants to dominate Lebanon etc; guess what, as socialists we also oppose that. Why does that mean denying the real elements of bourgeois democracy that exists in Israel?"

Submitted by Jason on Fri, 12/09/2008 - 18:39

Ok I accept I did (mistakenly) believe that this was an article by an AWL member- I think you may have made it clearer/bolder since then but if I misread or missed it then apologies- I accept that. The attack on Syria shoould be condemned- even if it didn't kill anyone it will strengthen the hands of the reactionaries, we should not support any agressive military act by the Israeli (or any other) ruling class but obviously some are more serious than others.

Of course there will be times when we take sides in wars- for example supporting an oppressed nationality against genocide or racist progrom- but even then we should be for the working class having political, organisational and military independence even if at times you may adovcate a temporary tactical united front.

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