The Alliance for Workers Liberty or AWL (formerly known as Socialist Organiser) is among the most hard-line of the British Trotskyist groups. It has around 50 to 80 members, and when it holds conferences gets an attendance of around 100 to 150. There is a small core of committed activists, and an ever changing periphery of those temporarily brought into their orbit. It is a group that has been in existence since the early 1960s, and has therefore prioritised ideological homogeneity over growth.
It was not considered significant enough for consideration, except in passing, in John Callaghan’s definitive academic study “British Trotskyism, Theory and Practice” [Basil Backwell, 1984], however the acidic but impartial and usually accurate booklet by John Sullivan “As soon as this pub closes, the British Left Explained” [written using the pseudonym “Chus Aguirre and Mo Klonsky”, Estate of Prunella Kaur, 1986] describes them as a group characterised by “intransigence and hardness verging on personal rudeness”. It has been built as a cult around the charismatic leadership figure of John o’ Mahony (usually transliterated to a Gaelic spelling of Sean Matgamna); an example of the deference to the leader is that their paper (Solidarity) regularly prints Matgamna’s poetry alongside theoretical articles, although the poems have neither obvious merit nor relevance. (An example, can be read here: http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/12/17/what-be-done )
Sullivan observes that the AWL has been bewilderingly inconsistent in their political positions over the years, but that this has always served an institutional interest in creating sharp differentiation with other Trotskyist groups. In particular, the AWL has followed a unique path of courting every other Trotskyist group, merging, and then acrimoniously splitting, taking handful of converts won through the sharp polemics.
This is a strategy modelled on the work of the veteran American Trotskyist James Cannon as described in a collection of his essays “The Struggle for a Proletarian Party” [Resistance Books, 2001], and is a practice known as the “French Turn”, following advice from Trotsky to his followers in France in 1934 to join the mass Socialist Party / SFIO (equivalent to the British Labour Party), and take over its youth wing. The French Trotskyists agitated against the Socialist Party forming a joint front with the Radical Party to oppose fascism, and then used this as a pretext to split the SFIO, thus creating an acrimonious and divisive faction fight that diverted energy away from the urgent struggle against fascism.
There is therefore a conscious and historically developed theory informing the AWL’s behaviour, which manifests itself as being completely charming and grooming potential converts, or appearing as model members of organisations they are seeking to enter; and then once they have built a relationship, they deliberately exacerbate a climate of tension and polemic to either force potential converts to choose whether to join or leave the cult, or to split organisations they have joined, hopefully taking some recruits with them. The AWL is candid about its rather creepy grooming technique [ http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2010/04/07/winning-battle-ideas-methods-contact-work-lutte-ouvriere ]
One area where the AWL has nevertheless been consistent is their extreme hostility to the socialist countries and anyone who sees any merit in them. They praise the American Trotskyist, Max Schactman, as the major theoretician informing their view of actually existing socialism. Schactman argued that the USSR was as bad as Nazi Germany, and he therefore supported both the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the USA, and the American war in Vietnam.
Similarly, the modern AWL argues in an on-line article [“What is the Bolshevik-Trotskyist tradition?”, http://www.workersliberty.org/node/5146 ] that “According to every criterion the labour movement throughout its history had measured by — civil liberties, political democracy, the free existence of labour movements, free press, speech, sexuality — the USSR, China, etc. were at least as much of a regression as Nazism had been.”
Naturally, as the AWL believes that members of the Communist Party and members of the Labour Party who, for example, support Cuba, are effectively supporters of something as bad as, or worse than Nazism, then this provides self-justification for their extreme hostility to all other currents in the broader labour movement.
Callaghan [1984, p25] argues that all Trotskyism is potentially problematic because they believe that “one party can represent the ‘historic interests’ of the working class as a whole without critical opposition”. This is particularly incompatible with trade unionism where the union needs to represent the broad spectrum of beliefs of its membership, and respect the pluralism of its activists. Reference to an inherently virtuous historic mission can also serve to validate sharp practice.
Other groups on the British left, such as the Socialist Workers Party, (SWP), and Socialist Party, (SP), are sufficiently rooted in the practicalities of the broader labour movement that, while they may argue for positions that are idealistic or impractical and may occasionally cause practical problems, they have sufficient members involved in real trade union activity to mainly moderate their more hubristic aspirations. In particular they are aware of the nature of trade unions as inherently pluralist institutions that have to represent all members, with a variety of political beliefs.
In contrast, the AWL has limited trade union implantation (their most famous former member, Mark Serwotka, nowadays shares little of their politics). A recent document of theirs refers to their aspiration “to build a rank and file network independent of the union officialdom…”. [ http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/04/22/what-we-do-week-life-awl ] To this end they produce regular activist bulletins for Royal Mail and for the London Underground workers. Given the very small size of the AWL, then any cluster of AWL supporters and members or supporters is suggestive of deliberate planning. Indeed, I have read internal AWL documents that argue that members should only get jobs where there is already a cluster of AWL members, or where the work gives them enough spare time for the routine of “party building” activity.
The AWL perceive the need for a rank and file network because they believe “Unions in Britain, and in most countries, are dominated by middle-class bureaucrats, on huge salaries and expenses, who see themselves as peacemakers between workers and bosses and fear working-class struggle. … … We fight for “rank and file movements” in every union to challenge the bureaucrats and organise the struggle when they won’t.” [10 reasons you should join Workers' Liberty, http://www.workersliberty.org/10reasons ]
Various “Rank and File” strategies have been tried in the unions through the years, usually seeking to increase the capacity for grassroots lay activists to act independently from official union structures. However, what characterises the AWL’s approach is the prescription that the so-called “Rank and File organisation” should fully mirror the AWL’s own politics instead of reflecting the plurality of views among trade union activists [See the ironically named, “We need a rank and file movement in the UCU, not a political front” http://www.workersliberty.org/node/6495 ]. The network they are seeking to build would therefore take its leadership from the AWL.
On London Underground, the AWL’s regular leaflet Tubeworker [ http://www.workersliberty.org/twblog ] describes itself as “ a platform for rank-and-file London Underground workers, telling you what the bosses and bureaucrats won’t.” Given that AWL member Janine Booth is now London Transport rep on the RMT’s national executive, and that AWL is deeply hostile to the politics of Bob Crow, then it is hard to see how productive relations between lay members and full time officials can be maintained, when Janine is committed to writing leaflets that undermine officials who the AWL describe as bureaucrats, and by implication break confidences (telling you what the “bureaucrat” won’t)
The AWL says that their aim in RMT is to “prioritise recruiting new AWL members”. Significantly this is regarded as more important than strengthening the union. To this aim in May 2011 they set up a Tube workers’ AWL branch that caucuses around introducing their controversial politics into RMT branches. “We have prioritised political discussion in the branch, increasing our confidence to sell the paper to more and more people. Together, we discussed, wrote and moved an amendment on Libya to last month’s regional meeting. Although we lost the vote, we impressed some people by articulating clear, distinctive and thought-out views” [AWL expands on London Underground, http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/05/04/awl-expands-london-underground ]
Paradoxically, while the AWL constantly seeks to foster polarised political debate, (even where it is manifestly inappropriate), the organisation is antipathetic to pluralism, and pigeon-holes other political activists as “reformists” (by which they mean mainstream Labour Party members), “Stalinists” (by which they mean anyone who believes that – for example – Cuba is socialist, or who believes that post-colonial governments in the developing world are progressive), or “kitsch socialists”, which is how they describe all other Trotskyist groups.
One of the consequences of such pigeon-holing is the pattern of love-bombing followed by hostility. When first encountering someone who shares some political views similar to the AWL’s then that person is flattered and courted, but as soon as it appears that this potential new convert retains some loyalty to “reformism”, “Stalinism” or “kitsch socialism”, then they are regarded as a potential enemy to the AWL’s aims.
As such, the AWL represents an exaggerated parody of the internal regimes of the official communist parties in the Stalin era. The Sovietologist academic, J Arch Getty [ "The Road to Terror", 2002 ] argues that the Leninist project inherently seeks to establish “a hegemonic and obligatory political ideology”:
“The documents of the Bolshevik elite … provide a case study in the deliberate and intentional production and refinement of a prescribed belief system. Ideological definition was an important part of Bolshevik tradition and Stalinist rule. Lenin spent much of his life producing and debating political programmes. For the Bolsheviks before the revolution (and especially for the intellectual leaders in emigration), hairsplitting over precise points of revolutionary ideology was much of their political life. To a significant extent, Bolshevik politics has always been inextricably bound with creating and sharpening texts”
J. Arch Getty argues how internal bulletins and statements from the Bolshevik leadership were carefully drafted, with the expectation that exact phrases and careful linguistic constructions would be analysed and used, shaping both action, and a shared perception of reality within the group. Competing theories and texts were therefore hard to assimilate or compromise with; and a particular aspect of Leninist thought is the creation of symbolic categories of opponents, who are demonised, often through the use of apocryphal “atrocity stories” .
This is a practice that is consciously replicated by the AWL, whose documents stress the virtue of fierce polemic, and require all members to participate in perpetual political education classes. Their documents clearly give a messianic significance to such training as being of world-historic significance in perpetuating what they believe are the only ideas that can lead to human liberation.
The nuanced approach required to move the whole labour movement forward based upon mutual respect is therefore replaced by an a-priori dismissal of other points of view. Political polemic is regarded as always appropriate, even where the audience may not understand the terms of the argument, as an AWL document explains:
“A serious Marxist organisation has no tolerance for denial of [the need for constant polemical argument], or for demagogic pseudo-workerist demands for levelling down — no one has a right to know more, or if they know it, to express more than us poor workers can effortlessly understand — of the sort the — essentially petit bourgeois — Thornettites once made notorious in our ranks. The Marxist movement levels up, not down.”
(The demonising of Alan Thornett with the code word “petit-bourgeois” is amusing – the son of a farm labourer who left school at 14 and worked as a lorry driver)
Because the AWL both believe that all other left currents are enemies that need to be removed, and believe in a polemical and aggressive approach to debate, they will work in alliance with more conservative forces; for example by targeting Cuba as “undemocratic”, the AWL seeks to win the support of conservatives to oust from position those socialists who support Cuba.
A long term characteristic of the AWL’s behaviour is dissembling. During the 1980s they gained a number of full-time sabbatical positions on the National Union of Students executive. This was achieved by gaining numbers of NUS delegates far beyond their real influence, by taking officer positions in FE colleges on a non-political basis, and then only revealing themselves as AWL (at that time, Socialist Organiser) members at conference. During the period of the AWL’s influence in the NUS the atmosphere became increasingly hostile, stressful and acrimonious.
It is worth considering the question of whether the AWL a Cult?
The accusation that a political group is a cult is a serious one, because it implies that their behaviour is not to be judged only on their ideology and political practice, but also on the suspicion that they are inherently manipulative (and as individuals themselves manipulated by their group). A normal political faction with ideas that are rash or misguided can be contained by the normal democratic processes, but a cult that employs manipulation and itself seeks to subvert those democratic processes by subterfuge and even brainwashing becomes a problem to be managed.
Following the definition in Luis A. Cordón’s “Popular Psychology: an Encyclopedia”, [Greenwood Press, 2005, pp 46 - 47] there are a number of behaviours of the AWL that are reminiscent of “coercive persuasion” or brainwashing.
Cordón describes a number of conditions characteristic of coercive persuasion, although not all need to be present:
i) application of stress;
ii) constant repetition of a single simple solution to all problems;
iii) entrapment, where intrusive and increasingly unreasonable demands are made upon those being initiated into the group, and whereby cognitive dissonance can only be avoided by compliance;
iv) weakening pre-existent ties with those outside the group, this can be achieved by keeping cult members always busy;
v) unconditional acceptance within the group, provided any transgressions do not cross the boundary of group loyalty; creation of a group identity;
vi) weakening critical evaluation of the group’s ideology, both through continually stressing urgency, and through mockery of those who doubt the group.
When a combination of these techniques is employed then group consciousness subsumes individual will; one of the manifestations is that individual personalities converge towards the group norm. Cordón stresses that these techniques work on anyone, and not just the stupid or weak willed. Therefore cult members can appear highly intelligent and impressively socially adept, and yet their loyalty to the group overrides moral norms of how they behave to people outside the group.
The AWL specialises in creating stressful conflicts in conferences, based around unnecessary political polarisation. Much of their political practice was developed in the National Union of Students, where conferences involve meetings through the night, lack of sleep, and a highly factional atmosphere. This is a perfect environment for forcing new converts to take sides in debates and identify with them. The AWL blog “Shiraz Socialist” describes how the AWL set up a debate in 2009 with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign that then became stressfully heated: “shouting, heckling, cheering and booing could be heard eminating from a nearby room. It turned out that this was a super-heated debate on Cuba, between the AWL’s Paul Hampton and the RCG’s Helen Yaffe (accompanied by quite a few vociforous Cuba Solidarity Campaign supporters, so she wasn’t outnumbered). I gather both speakers gave as good as they got and it all nearly spiralled out of control, but stopped short (just) of blows.” [Cubana Bop, http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/category/cuba/ ]
The AWL’s practice towards individuals also includes showering affection on potential recruits and making them the centre of attention, and then seemingly inexplicably switching to become hostile when that new recruit questions an element of AWL orthodoxy. This creates a stressful pressure for people to accept the AWL’s point of view in order to regain favour and be rewarded again with affection.
Despite their self-deception that they have a high level of theoretical debate, the AWL’s documents provide a very simple and Manichean view of virtuous “rank and file” workers, evil governments and bureaucrats, and the cathartic remedy of revolution. Sullivan [1986, p37] described this phenomenon of carefully circumscribed debate well: “Group discussion fills a … modest function. It fills in the detail of an outline which has already been agreed on, and allows new areas to be explored so that group members can together agree upon its interpretation. … [There is] implicit agreement that discussion must not disturb accepted truths”
People being initiated into the AWL need to go through a number of ritual hurdles over a period of months before they are accepted as member, during which time they become habituated to the demands of the group.
[“What is the Bolshevik-Trotskyist tradition?”, http://www.workersliberty.org/node/5146 ]
“The serious Marxist organisation will normally insist on a process of recruitment and induction where the aspirant member is put through a basic minimum education in Marxism, and does not acquire full rights inside the organisation until such an education is completed.”
Progressing in any organisation with increasing status and acceptance is of course a normal part of institutional life; but the distinctive feature of the AWL is that this progress is combined with losing ties with those outside the group, and accepting inherently irrational demands, for example, their constitution requires written permission to reduce activity even when a member is ill.[ http://archive.workersliberty.org/resources/constitution.html ]:
“A member suffering from illness or other distress may be granted a total or partial leave of absence from activity for up to two months; but the leave of absence must be ratified in writing by the Executive Committee, and the activist must continue to pay financial contributions to the AWL.”
Immersion into the AWL culture requires not only agreement with their politics, but extremely detailed training in every aspect of their practical activity: on how to talk to people, how to read and understand texts, what they call “meeting choreography”, (how to use body language and where to sit in a meeting)”, and what small talk to use while giving change after selling a paper. AWL training even includes role-play where the trainee pretends to be selling the paper, and other members pretend to be passers by. Most amusingly, training is offered on how to deal with the situation that a “Recruit … finds AWL “too middle-class”. [ http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/01/18/training-sessions ]
Weakening pre-existent ties with those outside the group:
The AWL has a punishing and unreasonable requirement for non-stop activity that makes the maintenance of relationships with those outside the group problematic. Each week the branch organiser lists all the activities for the forthcoming week on an official form, and each member has to sign which activities they will do, with the expectation there will be one or more activity every day.
Members who only sign up for a few activities will be publically rebuked [ http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/05/31/activities-schedule-form-awl-branches ].
They require the total commitment of zealots:
[“What is the Bolshevik-Trotskyist tradition?”, http://www.workersliberty.org/node/5146 ]
“we call for the adherence to our ranks of serious socialists, determined to devote, not the spare evenings of dilettantes, but active dedicate lives [sic] to the greatest cause in the world”
For an avowedly feminist organisation, the AWL is remarkably indulgent of older male members behaving in a sexually inappropriate way.
But most revealingly in demonstrating their cultish indulgence o fgroup insiders, Birmingham based AWL activist and UNITE member, Jim Denham, has a reputation for drunkenly disrupting meetings, offering to fight people, publishing scatological abuse about political rivals on his Shiraz Socialist blog, and even making racially insensitive insults.
An example of Jim Denham’s approach is this comment posted on this website, Submitted on 2012/03/04 at 12:23 am
Nooman = stooge of Assad. Should be shot on sight.
Yet as someone who has been a very long term insider, he is defended and regarded as beyond criticism by the AWL, and other AWL members affectionately collude with him by refering to him as “Father Jack”. Last year Jim Denham libelled UNITE official Andrew Murray, and Guardian journalist, Seamus Milne, falsely saying that they were members of the Stalin Society. [Stalinism and Unite: Mr Murray’s reply, http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/stalinism-and-unite-murrays-reply/ ]. This resulted in no public rebuke of Denham from the AWL, but from the comments on the Shiraz Socialist blog we see that Murray’s denial sparked a renewed round abuse of him.
Weakening critical evaluation of the group’s ideology:
The AWL has a clearly messianic self-assessment, as their leader Sean Matgamna has argued “Socialism is one side in the struggle for the future of humankind, and on socialists winning that struggle may depend whether we are going to survive at all. … … the revival of socialism depends on the victory of [the AWL’s] ideas, and that means on how well we fight for those ideas, on how well we educate and organise ourselves to fight for them.”
[Has the Left Lost Its Way?, http://www.workersliberty.org/node/8833 ]
Given this urgent task for the AWL, the punishing routine of activity every day, repeated creations of stressful and polarised situations, and the demonisation of all other left and trade union activists as “reformists, Stalinists and kitsch socialists”, then AWL members are discouraged from stepping back and considering the relative merits of the group’s ideology.
Indeed the level of commitment and substantial financial contributions mean that to question the politics is to question their own judgement in making such an investment in the first place. The more someone pays for a fake the more they are inclined to believe it is genuine.
There is certainly an arguable case that when compared to the benchmark of other left groups, like the Communist Party, the SWP and the SP, the practices of the AWL are much closer to the dynamics of a cult.
Taken in combination, the characteristics of the AWL make their participation in broader labour movement organisations or campaigns potentially problematic.
At the very least, the level of commitment, dedication and training in pre-meditated factional activity of AWL members, and their sense of group loyalty to each other which over-rides the norms of trade union behaviour, makes them a source of disruption. This is especially the case given that their primary motivation seems to be to gain recruits for their group, regardless of whether the process by which they do so damages a union or campaign.