Workers Hammer No. 200
Islamophobia, the SWP and the mosques
This letter was received by e-mail on 4 March.
In a two-faced article decrying the Islamophobia of the Blair government and its lackeys such as the Alliance for Workers Liberty, while at the same time echoing many of their smears against Respect and the Socialist Workers Party, the incoherence of the Spartacists faced with the ‘war on terror’ shines through.
According to Spart mythology, the SWP’s ‘state capitalist’ analysis of the Soviet Union and refusal to ‘defend’ that state always meant that, like Max Shachtman in 1940, the followers of Tony Cliff had simply become political agents of their own ruling class — pro-imperialist reformists, in other words. This equation has been the central unifying point of all Spart polemics against the SWP since...the Sparts started writing polemics against the SWP.
The current ‘war on terror’, however, has exposed this equation as a lie. The real-life devotees of Max Shachtman, such as the AWL, line up with their own ruling class and its outrageous campaigns against Muslim peoples (though even they exhibit a few qualms now and then). The SWP, on the other hand, is on the opposite side of the barricades — and has to its great credit bent the stick in the defence of Muslims to the extent of having itself become the object of a hate-campaign by pro-imperialist reactionaries that begins to resemble old style anti-semitic rants against ‘Jew-Bolshevism’, albeit with ‘Jew’ replaced by ‘Muslim’.
For all its protestations about how it opposes ‘Islamophobia’, the SL adds its own pennyworth to that demonisation. According to the SL: “The SWP’s adaptation to Islam is based on the utterly false notion that political Islam is ‘anti-imperialist’”. Aside from the fact that no evidence is provided of any social pressure to “adapt” to political Islam in this racist, Islamophobic society and political climate — very much the reverse, actually — this actually begs another question. If the SWP are, as the SL says they are, pro-imperialist political agents of their own ruling class, then why should such “lackeys” politically adapt to an allegedly “anti-imperialist” force that its own ruling class currently regards as, in the words of Workers Hammer, “the replacement for the ‘red menace’ in order to justify domestic repression and imperialist military aggression”. Why would “servants” of their own ruling class, as the SL has repeatedly slandered the SWP as, do that? The two accusations are mutually contradictory and simply do not make sense.
The SL continually, and in an increasingly lonely fashion, rants on about Afghanistan being the ‘acid test for revolutionaries’ around questions involving Islam and imperialism. Meanwhile the world passes it by. It is worth noting that both the SWP and the AWL supported the armed insurgency against the Soviet forces in the 1980s. Yet over the ‘war on terror’, they are on opposite sides of the barricades from each other. Which kind of suggests that Afghanistan in the 1980s was not an ‘acid test’ at all, but a problematic conflict whose significance could only be determined in the light of a longer historical perspective. The Shachtmanites of the AWL supported the anti-Soviet insurgency for the same reason they tacitly support the ‘war on terror’ today ...that is, because they support their own ruling class. The SWP, on the other hand, do not flinch from defending the rights of Afghans, even of the Taliban, to armed struggle against their ‘own’ ruling class’s armed forces.
Maybe the real ‘acid test’ is something rather different to what the SL says it is (or was). Maybe the ‘acid test’ is unflinching defence of Muslim peoples from national oppression, whether such oppression comes from the Stalinist regime formerly in the Kremlin, or George Bush and Tony Blair today. In this regard, it is worth noting that the least modified remnant of the old USSR, Uzbekistan, whose Stalinist regime is still intact (if camouflaged) is one of George Bush’s most staunch and most barbaric allies in today’s ‘war on terror’.
Or maybe the ‘acid test’ is support for the struggle against the dispossession of the Palestinian people today, and for the destruction of the apartheid state of Israel that excludes many millions of mainly Muslim Arabs from the territory from which their families originated in living memory (as opposed to millenia-old biblical semi-myth)? Noting the SL’s own Shachtmanite origins and acceptance of demonisation of the Arabs (who allegedly thirst to ‘drive the Jews into the sea’ according to the SL), maybe the real ‘acid test’ is all these things and more?
For the SWP, these are matters of the highest principle. For the AWL, these are things that can only be done with their own ruling class’s approval. For the SL, completely divorced from reality in a dreamworld of Trotskyist ‘orthodoxy’ where the ‘acid test’ is the SL’s supposedly ‘uniquely correct’ analysis of the ‘Russian question’, all these questions appear like from a different universe. As the Chinese ‘workers state’ openly aspires to one day eclipse America as the world’s greatest capitalist economic superpower, the SL ruminates that the highest duty of communists is to defend China against capitalist restoration. Oh dear!
Once upon a time I believed your ‘acid tests’ offered something pretty unique to the working class. Ah well, it just goes to show how wrong you can be.
Workers Hammer replies:
Donald Irons was evidently stung by our article “Racism and the Islamic veil” which appeared in Workers Hammer no 197, Winter 2006-2007. Written in response to the racist furore whipped up by cabinet minister Jack Straw against the Islamic veil (niqab), the article is a searing condemnation of the Labour government’s anti-Muslim “war on terror” and the bigoted scapegoating of Muslim women. Putting forward a perspective of mobilising the multiethnic working class to combat the “war on terror” and to defend the besieged Muslim population, the article points to the need to struggle against the Labour government and the capitalist profit system which is the root cause of racist and sexual oppression. To that end it denounces those self-styled leftist groups like the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), whose craven loyalty to supposedly “democratic” British imperialism is such that they parrot the vile Islamophobia of the British ruling class and its Labour government. Our article also takes issue with the liberals — including liberals from Muslim backgrounds, such as the Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown — who, in the name of “defending women’s rights” end up on the side of the racists in Westminster by supporting a state ban on the niqab. In contrast, the Spartacist League demanded: “No to racist state bans on Muslim dress!” and explained:
“As Marxists — and therefore atheists and fighters for women’s liberation — we oppose the veil as both a symbol and an instrument of women’s oppression. Nonetheless we unambiguously oppose any state or government bans and restrictions on the veil, which are racist and discriminatory against Muslims. Contrary to liberal claims that banning the veil is designed to integrate Muslims into society, bans will lead to expulsions of Muslim women from schools, universities and the workforce, which will reinforce their isolation and oppression. Bans will also fuel racism and play into the hands of the fascist BNP.”
What gets Irons’ goat though is our sharp criticism of the gross capitulation by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its Respect coalition to Islamic forces — an accommodation that is utterly antithetical to the liberating goals of proletarian socialism, especially the emancipation of women. The Workers Hammer article cites as an example a declaration by the “People’s Assembly” organised by the SWP-dominated Stop the War Coalition (StWC) on 18 November 2006. While condemning the government’s attacks on Islamic religious practices and the occupation of Iraq, the statement uttered not a word on the rights of women and presented the veil as simply a “choice of dress and cultural expression”. In response to this liberal nonsense our article insisted:
“Marxists reject such ‘cultural relativism’ which serves to prettify hideous oppression in the neo-colonial world as merely ‘cultural differences’. Often those who speak of ‘cultural relativism’ do so in a laudable effort not to impose Western cultural standards on the rest of the world. However it can also be used to condone gruesome crimes like female genital mutilation or so-called honour killings. Contrary to such drivel, the head-to-toe veil is a walking prison that physically excludes women from society.”
As the article made clear, “We solidarise with the countless thousands of women who have sought to escape the tyranny of the veil, whether in the Muslim world or in the imperialist centres.”
It is notable that while almost the whole Workers Hammer article is an impassioned presentation of the need for “women’s liberation through socialist revolution”, and while the furore over the veil sparked a furious controversy in the country over race relations, religion and women’s rights, not a bit of this is mentioned in Irons’ letter. Taking up the cudgels for the SWP, Irons merely condemns the Marxist programme of the Spartacist League as “two-faced” and “incoherent”. For Irons, it appears, “bending the stick in the defence of Muslims” can only mean the SWP’s opportunist accommodation to the mosques.
Cold-war anti-Sovietism: the origins of the SWP
The central argument in Donald Irons’ letter is that the SWP’s stance on the “war on terror” and its purported defence of Muslims disproves our assertion that this organisation and its founder Tony Cliff decisively capitulated to the British imperialist ruling class over the “Russian question”. The fact is that Tony Cliff broke from the Trotskyist Fourth International in 1950 when he accommodated to the anti-communist hysteria that accompanied the outbreak of the Korean War. When the Labour government of Clement Attlee sent British troops as part of a United Nations “police action” against North Korea, Cliff reneged on the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defence of the Chinese and North Korean deformed workers states against imperialist attack. This was a cowardly capitulation to the British bourgeoisie and the rotten Labour Party, for which the SWP’s forerunners were justly expelled from the Fourth International.
The Soviet Union was a workers state, issuing from the victorious Russian Revolution of October 1917 that overthrew the rule of the capitalists and the landlords and established the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under the conditions of hostile imperialist encirclement, the devastation and atomisation of the working class in the Civil War and the failure and defeat of the proletarian revolution internationally — particularly the 1923 German Revolution — the USSR underwent a political counterrevolution which began in 1923-24 when the bureaucratic apparatus headed by Stalin usurped political power. Despite this bureaucratic degeneration, the socialised property forms created by October were not destroyed and the USSR remained a workers state until counterrevolution in 1991-92. Trotskyists stood for unconditional military defence of the USSR while fighting for workers political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy.
To justify their betrayal of the class interests of the proletariat and their reconciliation with British imperialism, Cliff and the SWP denied the working-class character of the USSR and the deformed workers states in Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. In this respect, the Cliffites stand directly in the tradition of Max Shachtman, a leader of American Trotskyism who likewise capitulated to the wave of petty-bourgeois anti-communism on the eve of WWII and reneged on defence of the USSR. While Shachtman argued that the USSR was no longer a workers state but ruled by a new class of bureaucrats — a regime that he called “bureaucratic collectivism” — Cliff held that the Soviet Union was a form of “state capitalism”. In both cases, on their respective national terrains, this was simply a theoretical justification for a programme of anti-communist capitulation to their “own” ruling class — rallying to the defence of imperialist “democracy” against Stalinism. Shachtman claimed to be in a so-called “third camp” — neither with the imperialists nor with the USSR, but in reality the “third camp” was the camp of the imperialist ruling class and indeed Shachtman ended up as an apologist for US imperialism’s “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Castro’s Cuba in 1961.
Under the rubric of “Neither Washington nor Moscow” the SWP consistently cheered the forces of anti-Soviet counterrevolution at home and abroad while swearing loyalty to the Labour Party. The SWP lusted for the bloodying of the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s at the hands of the CIA-backed mujahedin cut-throats and championed the “trade union” credentials of Polish Solidarność — a counterrevolutionary tool of the Vatican, the CIA and Western bankers. As further confirmation of the SWP’s belief in the “democratic” nature of British imperialism, when the Labour government sent British troops to Northern Ireland in 1969, the SWP welcomed it saying it would provide a “breathing space” for the oppressed Catholic masses. When the Soviet Union, the world’s first workers state, was destroyed by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, the Cliffites cheered: “‘Communism has collapsed’, our newspapers and TV declare. It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991). And when Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected in 1997, the SWP declared itself “over the moon”.
Afghanistan, imperialism and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism
Irons boasts that both the SWP and the AWL supported what he calls “the armed insurgency against the Soviet forces in the 1980s”. Let’s be clear. He is referring here to the largest operation ever mounted by the CIA, who organised and armed the Afghan mujahedin in a “Holy War” against the Soviet army. This mobilisation of US imperialism was aimed at toppling the USSR itself and destroying every last vestige of the October Revolution. In December 1979 the Soviet army had intervened on the right side in the Afghan civil war — a conflict which pitted the left-nationalist PDPA government against the mediaevalist mujahedin who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women and shot schoolteachers for teaching little girls how to read and write. In addition to defending the USSR itself against imperialist provocation, the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan opened up the possibility of extending the gains of October to the Afghan peoples. Trotskyists hailed the Red Army and condemned the treacherous betrayal by Gorbachev, who pulled the troops out in order to conciliate US imperialism, ultimately laying the basis for counterrevolution in Eastern Europe and finally in the USSR itself.
Donald Irons objects to our statement that the SWP’s adaptation to Islam “is based on the utterly false notion that political Islam is ‘anti-imperialist’”, but it is a fact that the rapid growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the past two decades was a direct outgrowth of US imperialism’s funding of the likes of Bin Laden and the Taliban as tools against the USSR. Likewise, Hamas was initially a creature of the Israeli Mossad, designed to be a counterweight to the secular nationalists in the PLO and the Palestinian left. Like Bin Laden, Hamas became a Frankenstein’s monster to its creator.
Irons claims that the SWP “do not flinch from defending the rights of Afghans, even of the Taliban, to armed struggle against their ‘own’ ruling class’s armed forces”. Insofar as the insurgents in Iraq aim their blows against the imperialist aggressors, we call for their military defence against US and British imperialism. We do not, however, imbue these forces with “anti-imperialist” credentials and we stand in intransigent opposition to the murderous communal violence that is often carried out by the very same forces fighting the occupying armies. However, the SWP’s occasional cheerleading for the Iraqi “resistance” doesn’t prevent them from capitulating to British imperialism and the Labour government. When 15 British army and naval personnel were seized by Iranian forces in March this year, the StWC flinched immediately and issued an (undated) web statement saying: “We urge the speedy release and return to this country of the detained sailors and marines.” The SWP was not going to be seen as insufficiently supportive of “our boys” because that doesn’t play well with the Labour Party politicians and trade union bureaucrats they seek to influence.
While it is certainly true that the AWL is a shameless apologist for British imperialism — refusing even to call for British troops to get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland — the SWP is no more an opponent of imperialism, regardless of its posture as a defender of Muslims. The Stop the War Coalition was built as a cross-class alliance of forces which upheld the capitalist status quo, but disagreed with Blair over the Iraq war. For Marxists, the fight against imperialist plunder and war is based on opposition to the system of capitalist imperialism which breeds war. The StWC does not call on British workers to defend Iraq against British imperialism, but seeks instead to unite the maximum forces on the basis of bourgeois pacifism, duping anti-war protesters with the absurd notion that mass pressure will convince the Labour government to break with Bush. In other words it does not oppose British imperialism as a system of class rule but merely advocates an alternative foreign policy — one more independent of the US.
The SWP’s main claim to represent Britain’s oppressed Muslim population is the role they play in the Respect coalition. Respect is a cross-class alliance which does not even pretend to be “socialist” or to oppose capitalism in the name of the working class. Far from putting the SWP on opposite sides of the barricades to British imperialism, the Respect coalition fully accepts the framework of racist British capitalist rule based on the monarchy, the House of Lords, the established churches and Parliament. At Respect’s founding conference in January 2004, the SWP went so far as to ensure that a call for the abolition of the monarchy was voted down. Under the cover of fighting Islamophobia, Respect renounces secularism and any meaningful fight for rights for women and gays in pursuit of unity with the mosques.
Irons makes much of a supposed lack of “social pressure to ‘adapt’ to political Islam in this racist, Islamophobic society and political climate”. Well, the SWP seeks political allies among Muslim community leaders and tailors its politics accordingly, for example on women’s rights and gay rights. For the racist ruling class there is no contradiction between attacking Muslims as “terrorists” and nurturing the most oppressive forces in the Muslim community — both reinforce the grip of capitalism by scapegoating and regimenting immigrants. That is also a central purpose of “multiculturalism” — the voluntary cultural and racial segregation of minorities that the SWP defends. As our article explains: “This denies that minority communities, like the rest of society, are class-divided and that the struggle of immigrants and other minority workers for jobs, unions and equal status means breaking the grip of religious and other conservative community leaders.” The Spartacist League is unique in fighting today for new October Revolutions. To that end, we fight to forge a revolutionary workers party which will be built through breaking the ideological chains that tie the workers and oppressed to the class enemy — all variants of reformism and bourgeois ideology, including the false paradise of the priests, pastors, rabbis and imams.