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Secularism and the SWP

Tony Greenstein

Ben Drake's arguments as to why he and the SWP oppose Respect being a secular organisation are interesting. Nothing to do with angling for Muslim votes via the Mosque of course. Good gracious no. It's what has happened in 'secular' France with the banning of headscarves.

This is a really disgraceful and disingenuous argument. By the same logic, Ben and the SWP should have formally (as opposed to informally) have abandoned the idea of socialism because of what happened in the Soviet Union! Do we always take our enemies descriptions of their actions at face value?

In fact the same French state which banned Muslim children from wearing headscarves in school is the same state which allows artifacts such as crosses of the Christian religion in schools and which subsidises religious schools.

What Ben and the SWP can't get their heads around, or more likely they don't wish to offend Muslim religious leaders, is that the French actions weren't motivated by secularism at all, but RACISM. A particular group, those of the Islamic faith, were targeted for punitive treatment as a result of the 'war on terror'. Secularism might have been the excuse but it certainly wasn't the reason.

There was a time when the SWP would have questioned the reasons for actions given by the bourgeois state. Just as it would question the declaration of Bush and Blair that their only interest in Iraq is the pursuit of democracy. Maybe the SWP and Ben are now opposed to all manifestations of democracy because of the war in Iraq? Come to think of it they certainly are inside the SWP, where members have no rights, so maybe that isn't a good example!

Secularism means the separation of church and state. The confining of religion to the private sphere. It means we make no concessions to religious chauvinism and, at the same time, we oppose all attacks and discrimination against people by virtue of their faith (or none).

Secularism also means that we oppose the state funding all religious schools (no it doesn't mean closing them, it means the state taking direct control of them, rather than allowing their Governors to be controlled by the Church/Mosque/Synagogue etc). But I suspect Ben knows exactly what the implications of such a policy are.

It means giving support to people within religious communities who want to escape the tyranny of their religious leaders. It means no special privileges for religion and it also means complete freedom of worship, not only on democratic grounds but because there is no better way of weaning people off religion than removing all forms of oppression based on religion. Religious oppression in fact reinforces the power of religious leaders, which is why one of the themes of Jewish religious and Zionist leaders was always that anti-Semitism had within it the ‘divine will to good’ (Theodore Herzl) because it helped preserve the Jewish faith.

In their rush to the right, the SWP and Ben would rather live in 'a tolerant religious state than an intolerant secular one.' Leaving aside whether Britain is a tolerant religious state vs France (internment without trial?) I assume that by the same token that Ben would rather Britain was a tolerant monarchical religious state rather than an intolerant republican state.

When I was in the forerunner of the SWP, the International Socialists, we were warned of the perils of the electoral road. Once you set out on that road you compromise your politics for the sake of getting elected. What I didn't realise was how quickly the SWP would discard excess ideological baggage in order to cuddle up to the leaders of the Mosque. And all in the name of tolerance. There was also a time when the SWP would have been at the forefront of attacking this liberal, wishy washy concept of 'tolerance' and 'diversity'. Black and White Unite and Fight was their slogan. Anti-racism not 'tolerance' was the way forward.

John Rees, the SWP's very own Bernstein, is fond of using the analogy of what the SWP is doing vs the Muslim community with what the Communist Party did in respect (!) of the pre-war Jewish community. The difference is that the CP didn't compromise on its anti-fascist politics. On the contrary it consciously fought a battle with the rabbis and community leaders to wean away class conscious Jews, which is why the CP had such a large Jewish membership and achieved considerable electoral success in the East End as a result of e.g. the Battle of Cable Street which the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbi vehemently opposed.  It resulted in Phil Piratin being elected in 1945 as MP for Mile End. The SWP, rather than conduct such a battle, adopts all the terminology of the clericalist leaders of the Muslim communities (Islamaphobia etc.) rather than engage in class and anti-racist politics. But then that would also mean linking up with the white working class which has all but been abandoned to the BNP.


January 2005

Previous contributions
to this debate:
The trouble with secularism
In defence of secularism

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