Friday, 17 August 1990


Tribune leader, 17 August 1990

It would be a mistake to rush to condemn the unilateral decision of the United States President, George Bush, to send substantial American forces to the Gulf. Iraqi armour, having swept through Kuwait, was massing on the border of Saudi Arabia. If Saddam Hussein did not intend to invade, there was no way of telling. By the time a credible United Nations force could have been assembled, the Iraqis could easily have over-run Saudi Arabia and perhaps gone further. President Bush's action made it clear that Saddam's particu¬larly vicious police state would not be allowed to exercise power over any more territory than it already controlled. That is welcome, even though it is largely a by-product of the American's attempts to secure oil supplies.

Nevertheless, the current situation is fraught with danger. Having shifted so much military hardware so fast, the Amer¬icans and their allies now have a much more difficult task, which is to avoid using it. Although his forces are technically inferior, particularly in the air, Saddam Hussein is too heavily armed to be easily beaten by military means. He has large stocks of nerve gas, and has shown, both in the decade-long war with Iran and in his attempted genocide of the Kurds, that he is not ashamed to use it.

He also has the ballistic missiles to deliver conventional or chemical warheads over long range. If Iraq is attacked, Sad¬dam will retaliate — not just against soldiers, sailors and airmen, dehydrating but safe in their chemical warfare suits, but also against the unprotected civilians of Jerusalem, Damascus and Riyadh. In such an eventuality, it is not difficult to imagine that the Americans or the Israelis punishing Iraq with a nuclear strike. If Saddam moves first, the outcome will be no less disastrous.

Escalation of the current stand-off to full-scale war is, in short, almost too horrific to contemplate. The Americans and their allies, along with the rest of the world, must do every¬thing in their power to keep the pressure on Saddam without resorting to war. Given the reliance of the Iraqi economy on oil exports, a carefully enforced trade embargo will soon begin to bite. The danger is that what the US Navy sees as careful enforcement will be taken as provocation by Iraq.

Sitting tight and letting the sanctions do the work is not, however, enough. If the unilateral American intervention was necessary, it has also stirred up a hornets' nest in the Arab world. Arab opinion has been firmly anti-American for years — and with reason. Since it took from Britain the role of dominant imperial power in the region, America's Middle East policy has consisted of backing Israel through thick and thin, while propping up corrupt and despotic Arab allies and defending its oil interests.

Not so long ago, that meant supporting Iraq against Iran, doing as much business as possible with Iraq and ignoring both the brutality of Saddam's regime and his radical populist pan-Arabist rhetoric. Now Saddam is the gravest threat to Amer¬ican hegemony in the Middle East. Long viewed with indulg¬ence by the poor of the Arab world, not least for his support for the Palestinians, Saddam now appears to many Arabs as a saviour, the first leader in living memory with the guts to stand up to imperialism.

This will not really be changed by the Americans' success in getting Syria, Egypt and Morocco to send troops to Saudi Arabia — although moves to make the forces arrayed against Iraq genuinely multinational, preferably under the command of the United Nations, could defuse a little of the popular resentment at the Americans' action. The problem facing the Americans is much deeper. Until the Americans cease to shore up Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and until they stop backing corrupt plutocracies in the Arab world, the "man on horseback" will always find ready support among Arabs. Saddam Hussein might well be starved out within months but, unless America's Middle East policy changes, there will be plenty more Saddam Husseins in the future.

Friday, 3 August 1990


Tribune, 3 August 1990

Labour's National Executive Committee has decided to purge a second group of Trotskyists from the Labour Party – Socialist Organiser. Paul Anderson thinks it has taken a sledgehammer to crack some nuts

Last week's decision by the Labour Party's National Executive Committee to pros­cribe Socialist Organiser is one of the strangest it has made in years. Socialist Organiser is certainly, like Militant, a Leninist sect with its own rules and internal disci­pline.  But, unlike Militant, it is extremely small and insignificant, with nothing to match Militant's record of thuggery and corruption in Liverpool. The NEC seems to have taken a sledgehammer to crack some nuts.

Socialist Organiser has its origins in a small Trotskyist faction expelled from Tony Cliff's Interna­tional Socialists (now the Socialist Workers' Party) in 1971. This group was led by John O'Mahony, now the editor of Socialist Organiser newspaper, who also used, and continues to use, the Gaelic form of his name, Sean Matgamna.

After several years outside the Labour Party under various names, mostly spent in failed attempts to secure unity with other small Trot­skyist sects, the O'Mahony group, by now the International Commun­ist League, decided to join Labour. In 1978, along with several other small Trotskyist groups inside the Labour Party, it formed the Social­ist Campaign for Labour Victory. The Socialist Organiser newspaper was launched as the organ of the SCLV later the same year.

The SCLV (later the Socialist Organiser Alliance) acted as an effective hard-left front for a couple of years, playing a key role in the mobilising for reform of the Labour Party's constitution in 1980 and 1981. But it was an unstable coali­tion, constantly plagued by sec­tarian feuding, particularly over Left tactics and strategy in local government. It was soon reduced to two major constituents – O'Mahony's ICL and the Workers' Socialist League, run by Alan Thornett.

After Thornett and O'Mahony fell out in 1983, O'Mahony (who kept the Socialist Organiser name) seemed to go out of his way to isolate his group from others. Always an iconoclast, he now abandoned many of the core ortho­doxies of British Trotskyism. He dropped support for Irish Repub­licanism and Palestinian national­ism, criticised the bureaucratisation of the feminist movement, and, worst of all for the keepers of the Trotskyist flame, started to flirt with the ideas of Max Schactman, an American who broke with Trotskyism in the forties and became much more critical than orthodox Trotskyists of Soviet-style societies.

Meanwhile, Socialist Organiser lost its influence in local govern­ment and concentrated its efforts on the National Organisation of Labour Students, a handful of local Labour Parties and a few single-issue campaigns, the most success­ful of which has been the Campaign for Solidarity with Workers in the Eastern Bloc.

A Socialist Organiser front, Socialist Students in NOLS (SSiN), mounted a half-serious challenge for control of the National Union of Students in 1988 but proved incap­able of maintaining its momentum; today, Socialist Organiser has some 350 supporters nationwide (it claims 500), around half of whom are students, and an effective pre­sence in only two CLPs: Wallasey (which had a Socialist Organiser supporter, Lol Duffy, as a Parliamentary candidate in 1987 and submitted a Socialist Organiser model resolution to party confer­ence in 1989) and Nottingham East.

Socialist Organiser, in other words, is one of the smallest Trot­skyist groups in the Labour Party. It is also, by comparison with Mili­tant, well-behaved (there are no allegations of intimidation of other party members, for example) and relatively open. So why has the NEC decided to proscribe it?

The answer is simple. Wallasey, where Socialist Organiser is strong, is next door to Birkenhead, where the CLP earlier this year chose a local trade union official, Paul Davies, as its Parliamentary candi­date instead of the sitting MP, Frank Field.

Field, a darling of the media, refused to accept Davies's victory, complained that Militant and Socialist Organiser had interfered in the selection process, and threatened to resign to force a by-election on the issue of far-left infiltration into the Labour Party.

Under such pressure – and spurred on by memories of how Labour's poll ratings benefited from the attack on Militant in 1985 – the NEC decided to have a go at Socialist Organiser.

After a cursory investigation that seems to have produced as evidence only an anonymous two-page briefing prepared more than two years ago by NOLS activists in their battle against SSiN, Socialist Orga­niser appeared as an item on the agenda of the June NEC but was not discussed.

Subsequently, the NOLS briefing, which purported to document Socialist Organiser's practice as a democratic centralist sect and to identify the key figures in its lead­ership, was leaked to O'Mahony. He said that it was riddled with inaccuracies, some libellous (includ­ing a claim that he was a childhood member of the IRA); the NEC was presented with a "cleaned-up" ver­sion for its July meeting last week when it issued its ban.

O'Mahony argues that Socialist Organiser is "a democratic collec­tive, committed to rational demo­cratic working-class politics, not a cult with gurus and disciples". He complains, with reason, that the NEC gave Socialist Organiser no chance to put its case, and has announced that his group is "refus­ing to go quietly". This week Social­ist Organiser launched a campaign to defend its position in the Labour Party.

The irony of the NEC ban is that it has already had the effect of rallying many of Socialist Organ­iser's sworn enemies on the left behind the sect. The Trotskyist groups that have spurned O'Mahony for most of the past decade are now lining up with Tony Benn and most of the rest of the hard left to support him. Look out for some strange platform line-ups at this year's party conference.


Paul Anderson, review of The Alternative by Ben Pimlott, Anthony Wright and Tony Flower (eds) (W. H. Allen, £14.95), Tribune, 3 August 1990

The magazine Samizdat was started a couple of years ago by a small group of centre-left intellectuals with a large number of buddies on the journalistic-academic cocktail circuit, who were disappointed at their boy having missed the editorship of the New Statesman when Stuart Weir was appointed.

Samizdat's Big Idea was a "popular front of the mind" between centre and left. Although the centre parties were in the doldrums and Labour had moved some way towards the centre, Labour was still way behind in the opinion polls and would need an electoral pact or tactical voting to form a government, they thought. Worse, it still had all those awful working-class trade union chaps and loony Trots on board. And worst of all, Labour wasn't taking advice from the people (themselves) who had all the good ideas.

Unfortunately, less than six months after Samizdat was launched, Labour was well ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls, and since then it has looked likely to win the next election on its own. The centre, meanwhile, has more or less collapsed. Although Samizdat published several good articles (and a lot of dross), its raison d'etre became increasingly obscure. Its writers even started contributing to the New Statesman again once they realised that the Weir regime was not as hostile as they had feared. Indeed, the Statesman was just as sniffy as Samizdat about the Labour Party, just as keen on "popular fronts of the mind", and just as prone to the pretension that British left intellectuals whose advice had been spurned by Kinnock were in the same boat as dissidents in eastern Europe.

All this woud be comic were the product not so stale. A visitor from outer space would certainly gain substantial insights into British centre-left thinking by reading the pieces in The Alternative, the Samizdat reader "for the new millenium", but anyone who has read the liberal press in the past ten years will get a terrible sense of deja vu. Most of the longer pieces are the same old people — John Lloyd, David Marquand, Paul Hirst, Peter Hennessy, Christopher Huhne, Martin Jacques, Richard Holme, Raymond Plant, Michael Young, Julian Le Grand, Patricia Hewitt — trotting out the same old arguments (market forces, citizenship, proportional representation, reform of Whitehall, psephological trends, a touch of green) in the same old ponderous style.

Some do it better than others, and the longer contributions are interspersed with short pieces by Big Names from the World of Culture, some of which are not too bad, On the whole, however, The Alternative, far from offering "a stinging challenge to the Blandness Tendency, which has recently gained such an alarming influence on opposition politics", is little more than an encore by old bores who think they've a right to a job in the think-tank when Labour comes to power.