On Saturday 16th I attended the conference of Communist Students, the autonomous student organisation connected to the CPGB/Weekly Worker group. Around 25 people attended, of whom only around a quarter were actual CPGB members (as far as I could tell). Most of those attending were members of CS, but there were also a few of their contacts who I hadn't met before, as well as Bill Jefferies of Permanent Revolution.
The first significant discussion was on how we should fight against the British National Party, a debate which has recently had significant coverage in the Weekly Worker. While Ben Lewis, who led off the session, believes that we should be flexible in our tactics as regards the BNP, and although not necessarily seeking to organise meetings with the far right we should sometimes be prepared to debate them, others such as the Permanent Revolution group think that any debate legitimises the ideas of 'fascists' (there was a subordinate debate as to whether the BNP are actually fascists).
Ben talked about the way in which the SWP and the Unite Against Fascism campaign subscribe to liberal anti-fascism, seeking to defend 'normal' establishment political discourse against fascists, whose ideas are 'beyond the pale'. While the BNP has filled a political space vacated by Labour - claiming to have all the answers to some very real concerns of (white!) working class voters such as jobs and housing - and indeed won 800,000 votes in the European election, UAF just go round telling people not to 'vote Nazi', reminding them that Nazis are 'really, really bad'. In doing this they ignore the reasons why people vote BNP rather than Labour, Lib Dem or Tory - one SWPer he quoted even referred to BNP voters as 'the scum on the estates'.
Bill Jefferies' response was correct insofar as it stressed the need for working-class and minority community self-defence against fascists, and furthermore said that, unlike the SWP, he would not call on the bourgeois state to ban fascists, since any anti-free speech laws would just as easily be used against the far left. It is important that anti-fascism is a working-class cause, not an exercise in liberal moral condemnation of BNP voters. However, I think his argument that we should always refuse to debate fascists was wrong-headed, based as it was on the idea that since fascists are 'really, really bad', we should not give them legitimacy by sharing a platform with them. A couple of others, including James Turley, added that if you debate fascists and sweep the floor with their absurd ideas, they will still have won even if they pick up a couple of contacts by doing the meeting.
This was disingenous - the debate was not really about "should we write to the BNP and ask if they'd do a joint public meeting", but whether it was appropriate to boycott election hustings etc. in which they would also participate. Bill Jefferies said that a couple of years ago a Workers' Power comrade at a student union hustings debated a BNP candidate, but now he thinks she should just have "mobilised the audience against him". Ben Lewis made the obvious retort that a revolutionary standing in an election should seek to mobilise the audience against all of the other bourgeois candidates.
For my part, I said that if you made a principle out of refusing to share a platform with the BNP, then why not boycott the Tories too? Or the Liberal Democrats? Of course, in reality, tearing someone's ideas to shreds at a hustings is not 'legitimising' their politics. I furthermore pointed out that not only do the UAF refuse to debate the BNP, but they also refuse to engage with any of their ideas at all, telling people "don't vote Nazi, vote for anyone else" rather than saying "yes, housing, jobs and public services really are concerns, but black workers are not the problem". Lining up with the bourgeois parties and telling alienated Labour voters who vote BNP that they are just Nazi morons is no good - we should seek to win over their voters. Many of those who turn to the BNP would not do so if the left and workers' movement had more coherence and could ourselves promote a real alternative.
After a debate over whether CS should support the IWW union and an interesting discussion on student politics, and whether it is possible to build mass student campaigns on issues like fees - or indeed on international politics - the focus of the conference turned to imperialism and the Middle East. This was staged as a debate between the chair of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign, the CPGB's Tina Becker and myself (i.e. an AWL member with a "troops out now" position).
I found the politics of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign somewhat bizarre - while the speaker was strongly opposed to the Iranian regime and its various satellite organisations (he mentioned in particular the homophobia of the Mehdi Army), he did not have any particular focus on the working class as an anti-imperialist force, and lauded the home-grown Iraqi resistance groups. While Islamist forces are undoubtedly even more vicious, I was surprised that to this he counterposed secular Arab nationalism, and indeed the Ba'ath Party, claiming that Saddam Hussein remained the "legitimate" president of Iraq under "international law".
This was an unusual position, invoking laws created by the imperialist powers themselves in order to guarantee self-determination.
Indeed, he appeared to think that whatever happens in Iraq is fine, as long as there's no interference from the USA, UK or Iran. But while I opposed the war which provoked Saddam Hussein's downfall, I cannot stomach the idea that Saddam Hussein is "legitimate" - why has he any more right to rule than the dictator he overthrew, or the guy before him, and so on? Tina Becker took the Iraq Solidarity Campaign speaker to task on all of these points.
In my lead off I stressed the idea that no force in the Middle East other than the working class can introduce democracy, and no force other than the working class is, or even could be, anti-imperialist. Imperialism is the logic of modern capitalism, not something which exists in the abstract, and local bourgeoisies cannot be trusted to oppose it. Look at the Tehran theocracy - it spouts anti-imperialist rhetoric and yet supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq, supports the occupation of Afghanistan and has willingly introduced all sorts of IMF plans to liberalise its economy. Similarly, parties in Iraq like Dawa, SCIRI and even the forces led by Moqtada al-Sadr are not even sufficiently anti-imperialist as to refuse to participate in the occupation government.
Yet the SWP instead exaggerate the "progressive" character of the forces which it sees as anti-imperialist - for example, claiming that Iran is the most democratic country in the Middle East, and endorsing the welfare programme and "women's participation" in Hamas. They would rather look to "reform" elements within the Iranian bourgeoisie to effect change than encourage the working class to overthrow it. They seem to want to see this decade as the 1960s in slow motion, with Hamas substituting for the Vietcong and the Iranian government for Cuba.
I did however address the complexities of the kind of solidarity we need with workers in the Middle East. I expressed my disagreement with the majority position of the AWL which, while explicitly focused on the "third camp" of the working class, can collapse into acquiescence to imperialism when the workers appear too weak to act on their own. The AWL's refusal to call for troops out now, and indeed its support for Fatah against Hamas, are both predicated on the idea that the workers will be crushed without their imperialist guardians - yet how is the "third camp" ever to grow as an independent force if in the "here and now" (i.e. all the time) it does not cut itself sharply against both imperialism and Islamist reaction?
Our support for the working class in the Middle East must be linked to our tactics at home. Workers' action to undermine our armed forces and strikes against the war are vital in showing the power of the working class to stand on its own two feet as a force which can intervene in the "war on terror" conflict. "Troops out now" is not a magic wand to make the troops disappear, but a slogan for the working class to organise around, to try and realise that demand itself. I support the slogan not because it is unrealisable so doesn't matter what the consequences would be if it played out, but precisely because if it is workers in the US and UK or workers in Iraq whose efforts force the troops out, then the balance of forces will turn in favour of the workers' movement.
Actions like those of the train crew in Scotland who refused to move weapons are inextricably linked to the strikes of oil workers in Basra, and must be both encouraged and advertised. Rather than writing articles about geopolitical developments which we cannot influence with analyses cropped from the comment pages of the Guardian, our primary task is to talk about what the workers' movement can do itself.
I then briefly turned to the question of engaging with left groups in the Middle East, and said that as well as teaching ourselves about workers', women's, LGBT and student struggles in the region (which the SWP deny the existence of), we should critically engage with the ideas of our comrades there. Giving money to organisations in the Middle Eastern left is useful - particularly given their pressing need for self-defence - but we must also learn from the comrades and argue with their positions.
In the discussion that followed I broadly agreed with much of what was said by CS comrades, although I feel that they are too willing to defend those who raise the slogan "troops out now" from an abstract perspective with no reference to class. My whole point was that we should take a strict class standpoint against imperialism and Islamism, and discussion about which of the two heads of reaction is worse than the other or whether "the main enemy is at home" does not give us much tactical direction.
Equally, I have no doubt that neither the "bring the troops home" line of Barack Obama nor the Stalinist-Islamist use of "troops out now" by Galloway and his ilk is better than the position of Sean Matgamna. Nevertheless, my criticisms here should be qualified by a positive attitude towards Communist Students' and the CPGB's Hands Off the People of Iran campaign, although I do think they should make more of an effort to foster these ideas in the labour movement rather than just in the anti-war and student milieux.