Monday 12 January 2015

British Trotskyism on the Paris Terror Attacks

In living rooms, canteens, pubs, motorway services, hairdressers, and supermarket queues up and down the land there is a question not playing upon proletarian lips: what do the principal tendencies of British Trotskyism have to say about last week's terror attack on Charlie Hebdo and the weekend's unity march? None of which is going to stop me from surveying the scene, of course.

There are a couple of more serious points that need making first, though. Trotskyism, especially in Britain, has a very poor record when it comes to free speech matters. The tradition has an allergy to so-called high politics, preferring instead to fill the pages of their press with trade union reports and half-digested snippets from the Financial Times, so we're talking fishes out of water here. Trotskyism also has a problem with people who develop views at odds to the respective permanent leadership faction that owns the central committee, and is wary toward discussion among members that may deviate from the line. This is why any pretences to workers' democracy on their part should be taken with a pinch. Lastly, certain tendencies - you know who you are - mistake guilty liberalism for so-called anti-imperialism. Have last Wednesday's attacks occasioned any movement on this score?

Our first stop on the tour are the comrades in Scotland. Thanks to the referendum result the Scottish Socialist Party and the International Socialist Group are still organising their forces against the organs of the UK state. It's also fair to say both had a very good campaign. The SSP apparently put on over a thousand new members and the ISG were the organising heart of the Radical Independence Campaign. Both are riding a high. They might, as per Stalin's words, be "dizzy with success". Whatever the case, the SSP haven't updated their site since the new year and for the ISG we're talking October. Comrades who look to these outfits for guidance and direction will have to cast glances elsewhere, alas.

Of the Committee for a Workers International, which normally takes a while to respond to something, we have two pieces. An editorial published in this week's The Socialist, and a report from their French franchise on the Paris march. The comrades make no bones about condemning the attack as "cowardly and barbaric", and move on to sketch the French political context of widespread discrimination faced by Muslims, France's military jollies overseas and, of course, the tricky economic situation. It also welcomes the demonstrations against terror as a solidarising counter to the French far right and those who would seek to exploit the attacks to foster division and hate. The second piece from Gauche Revolutionnaire makes similar points about Sunday's march, and calls attention to the hypocrites flown in as special guests. As we know though, they weren't really on the march - it was a photo opp. Significantly too, going one better than the SP editorial GR also single out anti-semitism as something that needs combating. However, it ends with the CWI standard flourish about workers uniting against racism, while the SP copies and pastes its conclusion from every piece on every issue ever: "Public ownership of the key industries, socialist economic planning and democratic decision making at all levels of society would lay the basis for ending war, oppression, exploitation and poverty on a permanent basis; and terrorism." Delete terrorism and substitute for whatever topic of your choice.

Nevertheless, despite the usual SP ticks and economistic nods, it is a sensible statement and well within what you might call the mainstream of labour movement opinion. Joining them there is the piece from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. Theirs is a much stronger defence of free speech and make clear the Islamophobia or otherwise of Charlie's output is immaterial: blasphemy and by extension the right to be offensive are not grounds for killing someone. It is almost a more sophisticated analysis than the SP's "we're all workers here" position, pointing out the modern roots of Islamism, its appalling record of murder against Muslims who do not meet the religious purity expectations. Even better it doesn't end with the pious call to "unite and fight" but ruminates on the pressure to self-censor after these attacks. While no doubt real and something not a few journalists and editors will reflect upon, there are real and present dangers to this coming from our own increasingly authoritarian governments. People get arrested for writing on Twitter in Britain as well as in Egypt, though of course the consequences are much less severe, for now. The axis of threat is much different to the official line trotted out over the weekend by our leaders.

Dare I look at what the SWP have to say? Of course I do. The best way to describe their statement is to take all of the above, remove the condemnatory language, emphasise the rise of Islamophobia across Europe and the context of wars in the Middle East, imply that Charlie Hebdo are not worthy victims and there you have the central committee's statement. Like the SP's statement, in many ways seasoned left watchers (sad as we are) could have written their position in advance. The problem with this is it hands a gift to the opponents of the left who use it as a catch-all smear against anyone wanting to push beyond the official homilies and sanctified hypocrisies girdling the memory of Charlie staff and subsequent victims. It's really something when you can hold up a Workers Power's statement to show how it is done. It makes exactly the same points in more strident terms than the SWP (and, for that matter, the others) while making crystal clear its opposition to and condemnation of Islamist terror. No one reading that can accuse it of capitulating to contrived moral panics. As such, the SWP's statement is stuck in the groove of lefty do-gooderism. It's effectively a why-can't-we-all-be-nice-and-hold-hands sentiment dressed in stock phrasing that it sound as if Charlie Hebdo brought it on themselves. Soft on Islamism, soft on the murderous crimes of Islamism.

On the whole, with the exception of the SWP (whose stock surely cannot get any lower), the response of British Trotskyism has been a welcome surprise. While the SP's statement is more or less their standard reply to anything of this character, the AWL's and WP's show an appreciation of the context and an attempt to engage with the so-called high politics of the matter, albeit from different standpoints and with different conclusions. Perhaps there's hope for the majority of Britain's Trots after all.


BCFG said...

I think the SWP response is better than the 'official' reaction, which lacks much of the important context provided by the left. When you have an Israeli leader leading a unity march you only have to marvel at:

a) the insensitivity.
b) the cheek of it.
c) the sheer bravado.
d) the level of hypocrisy and irony.

Imagine a Palestinian watching a unity march where the leader of the nation that routinely bombs and kills your fellow citizens takes a prominent place!

Phil said...

The SWP does an alright job of the context, but completely fluffs it on Islamist terrorism. Socialists politics isn't a matter of putting a minus where the political establishments place a plus, the world is more complex than that, which is something the majority of the Trot organisations get. Still, that won't prevent the SWP's position from being taken as the outlook of the far left as a whole by some.

Anonymous said...

Former SWPers, the ISG, who morphed in to RIC, are now rebranding (again) as the Scottish Left Project, and did comment on Hebdo: