Sunday, August 10, 2008

Workers' Liberty vs Weekly Worker: debate goes nuclear

I return from my week in Dorset to find that the proverbial has well and truly hit the fan about Sean Matgamna's discussion piece on the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. There is a lively debate on Workers' Liberty's own website, and over on Shiraz Socialist, they are going at it hammer and tongs.

Personally, I think there are grounds to criticise Sean's article, and am inclined to broadly support David Broder's response to it. More on that later. However, far more shocking and appalling than anything that Sean wrote is the response from some sections of the 'left'.

You know when opposition is desperate and groundless when it resorts to simply making stuff up. So the Weekly Worker chose not to bother with a rational critique of Sean's views, but simply invented a story that he supports Israel nuking Iran. I'm not going to dissect their ridiculous coverage, as the very fact that they put a blatant fiction on their front page tells you all you need to know. Didn't I say something before about the Weekly Worker's sad disregard for the truth?

(BTW, I know there is a tenuous justification from the WW that because nuclear installations can apparently only be destroyed by nuclear weapons (not sure what science that is based on), and that Sean does not condemn (let's leave aside for now that neither does he support) an Israeli attack designed to knock out Iran's nuclear capacity, therefore he is, and therefore the AWL is, in favour of Israel nuking Iran. This is the equivalent of me saying "I wish someone would turn down my neighbour's loud music", and someone claiming that my neighbour's music system does not have a volume switch or an off switch, and he has sworn that he would protect it with his life, and thus concluding that my entire family advocates the brutal murder of my neighbour. In other words, it is pants posing as an 'argument'.)

Along with this comes all sorts of cant about driving the AWL out of the labour movement. For starters, you might notice that the labour movement is not in the habit of taking orders from the Weekly Worker. I wouldn't boast a massive influence for the AWL either, but the WW's is tiny, if that, and its pretence to be able to demand another group's exclusion implies a self-aggrandising delusion that is no surprise from a group which claims to be the Communist Party.

For seconds, their low level of involvement in the labour movement should not excuse their ignorance of that movement's tradition that debate is tolerated, even welcomed. We don't drive people or groups out for their views. The only group that should be 'driven out' of the labour movement is a fascist group.

For thirds, I don't recall - though I may be wrong, given that I don't read the Weekly Worker very often, life being too short - the WW demanding any other left group be treated as persona non grata, no matter what their thought-crimes. So link-ups with religious reactionaries, association with dictators, dumping of abortion rights and LGBT rights, selling out on pensions, apologism for war criminals, ... none of these things have warranted a fatwa from the Weekly Worker when groups other than the AWL (or WW) have done them. Oh no.

Next up, we have one Chris Stafford, commenting on Shiraz Socialist, Sean is very clear on which side he and his merry band are on: 'But if the Israeli airforce attempts to stop Iran developing the capacity to wipe it out with a nuclear bomb, in the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel?' Excuse me, but how on earth can you make clear what side you are on simply by asking a question?! A straightforwardly rhetorical question can indeed make your position clear - eg. "What the bloody hell do you think you are doing voting for Respect?" - but Sean's question is not of that kind: it is a question looking to discuss answers.

It seems to me that all the shrill blusterous denunciation of the AWL because of Sean's article throws up a convenient smokescreen to avoid answering that question. The attempt to address this question is the strength of Sean's article - the left has for too long settled for being against things without troubling itself about the grounds. Just as there were bad as well as good grounds for opposing the invasion of Iraq (eg. the far-right view that Britain shouldn't waste its time and money on foreigners), there are bad as well as good grounds for opposing an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear capacity - an example of 'bad grounds' would include asserting that Iran has the 'right' to nuclear weapons, or that Iran nuking Israel wouldn't be so bad. I shudder to think what some on the left will come out with, and it is right to challenge and discuss this in advance.

Anyone who is going to screamingly denounce Sean's article should actually address these questions: Is it OK for Iran to have nuclear weapons? Does Israel, and do Israelis, have genuine grounds to fear being nuked by Iran? And if so, what are they entitled to do about it?

I should at this point emphasise that Sean's opinion is Sean's opinion, and that AWL policy is to "oppose military action (whether invasion or air strikes, bombing raids etc) or economic sanctions against Iran ... We characterise any realistically likely military conflict between the US and Iran as one between two imperialisms: an imperialist superpower and a regional 'sub-imperialism'. A conflict between Iran and Israel would constitute war between two sub-imperialisms, with one most likely backed by the American superpower."

Sean's article has many weaknesses. I personally dislike his style of writing, which I think creates confusion rather than clarity. George Orwell put together a good set of rules for clear political writing, and Sean breaks most of them in most things he writes. It takes a little effort to tease out what is unhelpful writing style and what is political mistake, and there is overlap between the two. David Broder makes several worthy points, and I'll add a handful. Sean's article:
  • does not explicitly oppose an Israeli attack on Iran, as AWL's Sacha Ismail rightly argues. 'Not support', 'not take responsibility for', etc, is not good enough;
  • does not engage with the uncertainty as to whether Iran is actually developing nuclear weaponry;
  • addresses the issue from the point of view of what the Israeli state does and does not have the right to do, rather than how the Israeli, Iranian and Arab working classes can stop the warmongers;
  • does not consider Israel's aggressive and oppressive actions and intentions in the region - I'm not sure the article would be any different if written about a peace-loving, non-aggressive state (if such a thing could exist) feeling threatened by a nearby state;
  • rightly opposes the idea that socialists should not be 'unconditional pacifists', but skips over the idea that we should be generally anti-war. We are not pacifists because we do not oppose every single war in every single circumstance, but we are anti-war and anti-militarist; in fact, exposing the inbuilt drive to war is part of the socialist critique of capitalism.
Sean's article concludes by hoping for a calm debate. Given the left's habitual ways of arguing, that may be a triumph of optimism over experience, but he is right to hope for it. But if Sean had wanted a calm debate, he should have written a more balanced and calm article. Instead, he launched a flame-thrower, and got himself a flame war.

And finally ... I don't find gratuitous abuse in political debates, particular referring to mental health, in the least bit helpful, whether it be someone from Permanent Revolution calling Sean a nutcase or any similar comments coming in the other direction. And Jim Denham should probably avoid joining in debates, even on his own blog, when he has just come home from the pub. Other commenters on Shiraz, such as Alan Laurence, show that patient, reasoned argument get you a lot further than Jim's late-night intemperate style.

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