Not Waving, RA Vol 4, Issue 8, Sept/Oct '00


Over a period of some three weeks during July Red Action members engaged in a ‘debate’ on the UK Left internet discussion site. Louise Cooper reports.

News of Red Action’s affiliation to the London Socialist Alliance travelled fast and has not, it must be said, been greeted with universal approval. Within the ‘alliance’ itself the response has been muted. In other quarters, the reaction has been vitriolic.

On the UK Left internet discussion group, for instance, there was outright hostility from the start. It all began innocently enough. We inadvertently became involved, when an SLP member, entirely off his own back, posted an item from the Red Action Newspage on the LSA showing in the GLA elections in May, that he felt deserved a wider airing among the Left. The site holder Phil Holden, among others responded along the lines “that’s it’s all right to criticise from the sidelines but what have Red Action got to offer as an alternative.., surely they should take this perspective into the alliance and fight for it?” When news then filtered through that Red Action had in fact affiliated, joy was hardly unconfined.

Setting the tone, Ian Donovan was first into bat: “I have been involved in the Socialist Alliance project for well over two years, before the SWP comrades, and I have never heard of Red Action having the slightest inclination to support the Socialist Alliance up till now. It looks to me like they are trying to jump on a gathering bandwagon?’

And in any case, he went on “...they do not have the wherewithal to do anything to address the masses except publish a widely unread and obscure newspaper, which of course, is not really addressing the masses at all. They have no solutions, they are lust another tiny and isolated left sect, albeit with a reputation for being ‘hard knocks’ vis-a-vis the fascists and a libertarian aspect to their politics. They really don’t offer very much of anything at all to the working class.”

Fatefully, in the immediate exchanges that followed, the term “middle class left” was used to describe the priorities of a certain section of the left: ‘the age of consent’, etc. This expression was used by - and this is important - the SLP member mentioned previously. In a flash, Donovan was not only hanging the accusation on Red Action but, immediately began retaliating with some soubriquets of his own. He would continue to do so on practically every posting he would go on to make thereafter. As the debate went on for over three weeks and the total contributions amounted to over 60,000 words this was, depending on your point of view, either heroic or just plain barmy.

When Red Action’s under-representation on the LSA’s steering committee was raised, Donovan described it as “whingeing”. And added, if RA were not happy, we should go back to our “working class ghetto... why would you want to join a ‘middle class’ alliance anyway”.

Having worked up a head of steam the IWCA, an entirely innocent in the affair, was condemned as “sectarian and redneck” and it’s slogan “Working class rule for working class areas” described as “bullshit”. For Donovan: “The working class should rule the whole of society, not just some self-defined ‘working class’ ghetto. From this you would think that the working class are not immigrant, gay or anything else not native to Red Action’s self-defined constituency in the most deprived but less integrated sections of the white working class in the East End.” Without any prompting Donovan had begun to betray the unhealthy obsession of the liberal left with colour.

In later exchanges, he routinely employs the term “multi-ethnic working class”. Red Action’s use of the term “working class” as an all-encompassing one is quickly redefined by Donovan as really expressing an interest in the needs of the “white” working class-only! Throughout, these colour-coded prefixes are all exclusively of Mr Donovan’s own making.

A little too readily, others on the list unquestioningly accept the Donovan stereotype. Janine Booth of the Alliance for Workers Liberty piled-in to deliver her tuppence worth, “... it does not mean - as Red Action seem to do - denouncing everyone who disagrees with you as ‘middle class’, every concern with basic humanitarianism as ‘liberal’, and thinking that you’ve got all the answers because you’re hard and everyone else is a wimp.”

Liam Sharp of West Midlands RA sought to introduce some clarity. “Far from being content to produce an ‘obscure newspaper’ or casting aside our work in the Independent Working Class Association, we are also prepared to become involved as part of a larger alliance of left wing groups in order to advance within that alliance the need for the left to re-orientate themselves back to working class communities rather than become a ‘rainbow coalition’ of interest groups.”

This reasonable account of RA’s motives in joining the LSA, was instantly thrown back by Donovan: “What that means translated, is that your sectarian, redneck, IWCA project has failed and you now see the Socialist Alliance project as the means to revitalise your flagging fortunes, based on its relative success (which you played NO role in) against the IWCA’s failure.” (Remember that this ‘relative success’ of the LSA is based upon them polling half as many votes as the BNP in the London election.) The torch paper really took light when, prompted by the furore, a Donovan acolyte visited the Red Action site and returned with an item attacking the slogan ‘Refugees Welcome Here!’

Naturally for Donovan and co. the call for ‘Refugees Welcome Here!’ is not a well-researched tactical demand based upon the objective conditions faced by both refugees and the ‘host’ working class communities, but is a statement of ‘basic socialist and working class principle’ - regardless of consequences. Anyone who dares question it, can be expected to be immedi­ately categorised by Donovan and friends as ‘lumpen’, ‘redneck’, ‘sectarian’ or as Donovan himself puts it: “If you don’t agree with this, you are a chauvinist or a racist, or both.”

In vain, Red Action’s Tony Evans fought against the increasingly warped invective of the Donovan camp: “Red Action’s ‘reasoning’ is that against a background of a beleaguered working class, being forced to compete for resources with even more beleaguered refugees, for the left to seem so eager to take sides with the minority (to no useful effect) merely invites the BNP to take sidcs with the majority. If such thinking is ‘strange’ what should we make of someone who calls himself a ‘communist’ yet seems to see the working class as an enemy to be conquered?”

Donovan has no time for such pussy-footing. Either Red Action proclaims ‘Refugees Welcome Here!’ or it stands to reason that RA must therefore be opposed to refugees.

The political fight to win over the hearts and minds of the working class to progressive politics within their communities, thereby making those communities welcoming places to all who want to live there is dismissed, in order to win some phoney point of ‘principle’ within the confines of the left. Damn the working class and their sensitivities. If they can’t see that the left are always right, even when they are wrong, then they will just have to be coerced into what is good for them -the “socialist” alternative as prescribed by the LSA. “Confronting prejudice and reactionary chauvinism is always a ‘price worth paying’. It is a question of principle.”

In areas like Tipton and Bexley, according to Donovan, this might be achieved by ‘militarising these communities’ and reminding the working class of these areas of their responsibilities to the “multi-ethnic working class” which will form the vanguard of this mythical revolution.

“Maybe such backwaters will not be won over this side of the revolution, which may be based elsewhere (perhaps in the mainstream of multi­racial London). Maybe red guards based in Brixton or somewhere similar will put Bexley under military occupation. Maybe similar formations based in Handsworth or Sparkbrook will do the same to places like Tipton. Who knows?”

Not at any time is this challenged by the 120 list members. On the contrary the gloves come off. One former WRP member, Gerry Downing, goes as far as inventing a new verb in his eagerness to join in the verbal assaults on RA, “those that seek to descend to the ideological level of the fascists in order to fight them (to the extent of skinheading to look like them!) can never defeat them.” (“skinheading”!?!)

Despite strenuous Red Action efforts to take race out of the equation, Donovan and co continually raise it and re-raise it, in relation to the refugee question. Owen Jones offered the following check-off list: “How politically healthy a group is can be judged by a number of things - principally, their attitudes to women, to other races, to homosexuality, to refugees, to nationalism, to chauvinism, and to imperialism”.

Or as Janine Booth, was forced to remind him “possibly even to the working class”. In the sectarian rampage that followed, all Red Action, AFA and IWCA initiatives were trashed. The non-racial anti-mugging campaign in Newtown, Birmingham, is dismissed as “racist” and as “KKK-style vigilantes” without so much as even a modicum of knowledge about the area, or the campaign, being volunteered. The IWCA challenge to Labour in Hertfordshire is also waved away as an irrelevance. “Council corruption” we are brusquely informed “is not a class issue”.

All Red Action arguments are invalidated by our dismissal of the left as being “middle class”, while any baiting of Red Action is, acceptable because, as Ian Donovan says, “We do not want the left to capitulate to white nationalism like Red Action.’

Even with any sense of objectivity a distant memory, Donovan finally goes too far. “You can argue about the formulation of a slogan, about what would be the best form of words to make up a strategic demand or even series of demands to forcefully express the need to defend refugees, but to go steaming in and denounce the left as ‘middle class’ for making this a focus of agitation. I find strange and deeply distasteful... in my experience the one’s who go on about this are usually the worst middle class elements themselves.’!

It had taken more than a fortnight for the argument to come almost full circle. It would not have been entirely complete without the ritual condemnation of Red Action ‘intimidation’. After weeks of goading, the Donovan faction suddenly began to complain of thinly veiled threats of violence... I certainly wouldn’t trust a Red Action member on a dark night.. etc. Following appeals, the site holder decided that something would have to be done. Comically, it was by now, the equally long-suffering SLP member who, in the interests of ‘democratic debate’, was duly fingered and ‘escorted’ (if that’s the right word) from the site!

Looking back, it may have proved something of a turning point. ‘Ubersecterianism’ was suddenly on the defensive with others beginning to support the Red Action position and acknowledging that his campaign of vilification was used to ‘stymie debate’.

“Stop complaining about the use of ‘lumpen’ and check the record” Donovan screeched. “The use of ‘middle class’ preceded the use of ‘lumpen’ in this discussion by quite a long time.” “It is very clear who started the abuse. Those who steamed in screaming that anyone who didn’t agree with their reactionary position on refugees was ‘middle class’ were the people who ‘started the abuse”.

But as is all too clear from the archive, it is Donovan himself who is the ‘screamer’. More seriously is has taken socialism some 50 years to get to a point where it attracts significantly less than 5% of the vote in London. There are many reasons for this. Chief among them, is the apparent inability of the Left to tell the truth on any consis­tent basis. This is seriously disabling for any form of activity. In politics, where there is a perennial tussle between ends and means anyway, it is terminal. If the tolerance of the level of sophistry displayed on the UK Left site is accepted as the norm within the LSA, then it is doomed. And precisely because of that same methodology it will take them at least half a century to discover why, and yet another fifty years to publicly admit it.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 8, September/October '00