Intersectionality vs Social-imperialism

The recent spat in the NUS over Islamic State is indicative of the political disorientation of the student movement, writes Charles Gradnitzer


In July, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty member Dan Cooper brought a motion headed ‘Iraqi/Kurdish solidarity’ to the National Union of Students national executive council.1

The motion, which sought to “condemn the IS and support the Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention”, was not heard due to time limitations, so a similar motion was resubmitted to the September NEC meeting, having also been passed at the NUS’s Scottish EC.

During the meeting black students officer Malia Bouattia argued that the call contained in the motion for the NUS to “encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers” – would effectively mandate the NUS to spy on Islamic societies, as the government sought to do in 2011 as part of its Prevent programme.2 Rather than take the motion in parts or submit an amendment, the majority of the NEC voted against it in favour of discussing an alternative at its next meeting in December.

Three weeks later Cooper published a report of the meeting on the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts website.3 This report was picked up by others and the motion subsequently received attention from the national press, which proceeded to blow the entire thing out of proportion, claiming that it was voted down on the grounds that opposition to Islamic State was “Islamophobic”.

Malia was then subject to a barrage of online abuse from various groups, including the far right. Several members of the NUS NEC issued a statement on the NCAFC website explaining their decision4 and the NUS, NCAFC and various student unions issued statements in defence of Malia.

Last month student union officers at University College London attempted to prevent the AWL national conference from being held at UCL on ‘safe space’ grounds,5 claiming that Cooper’s report had “led to … death threats” being made against Malia, and citing Sean Matgamna’s confused, chauvinist article on ‘Marxism and religion’6 as evidence of the dangerous space that the AWL would create on campus. Thankfully they were unable to actually stop the conference, which went ahead as planned.

‘No confidence’

The most disappointing aspect of the debate following the rejection of the motion was the failure of anybody to explain why the motion was social-imperialist.

In his report of the NEC meeting Dan Cooper writes: “… the motion cannot be clearer in saying that [US imperialism] cannot be relied upon to deliver democratic change in Iraq: ‘no confidence or trust in the US military intervention’.”

In fact the motion could be a lot clearer – this “no confidence or trust” formulation has been used by the AWL to cover its non-opposition to imperialist intervention in Kosova in 1999, Bali in 2002, Iraq in 2003, Haiti in 2010, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2011. Given the AWL’s positions on these events, it is hardly surprising that nobody was convinced by its lack of “trust” in US imperialism.

The AWL supported outright the occupation of Iraq (while preaching “no confidence or trust” in it) on the grounds that it provided “some very limited space for the labour movement to exist”.7 In the resolution adopted by its 2004 AGM the AWL wrote: “We were right not to trust the US and the UK” and said it would not “give any political support” to the occupation, yet still refused to call for it to be immediately ended.8 This continued from the beginning of the occupation almost until its end.

In 2011, Sacha Ismail defended the AWL’s “non-opposition” to Nato intervention which produced the ongoing civil war, ethnic-cleansing and Balkanisation in Libya by claiming that “nothing was going to save the Libyan revolution except outside intervention”.9

This political confusion and double-think has obviously had a profound effect on AWL member Jim Denham, who thinks that the left should now call for the reoccupation of Iraq: “Aerial bombing will unfortunately not kill Isis: for once, ‘boots on the ground’ are necessary, and the left should be calling for that. The relative failure of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq was not the military campaigns (which were successful), but the ‘nation-building’ afterwards.”

Of course, Denham is simply taking the AWL’s position to its logical conclusion. Once you look into your crystal ball and determine that one of two capitalist options is more progressive, even with caveats about mistrust, it is not a giant leap from that to look to your own national bourgeoisie as the agency of historical change, as so many socialists have done throughout the history of the movement. Suspending the class struggle at home in the hope that you might mobilise or rely on antagonistic and alien forces to save the day, rather than mobilising the working class in its own international interests, is the antithesis of independent working class politics and foreign policy.

The AWL repeatedly arrives at such slogans and totally fails to evaluate the outcome of these interventions. Far from bringing any level of stability, America has time and time again produced unstable, fragmented states plagued by civil war, as it engages in increasingly irrational and destructive wars in order to retain its status as hegemon during a prolonged period of relative decline.

Think of the children

While the AWL’s positions on international conflicts and world affairs are wrong, they are simply ideas. They are not “dangerous” to people’s personal safety, as some UCL student union bureaucrats seem to think. The move to prevent the conference taking place was part of the new moral panic gripping student politics, where words and ideas are harmful in and of themselves and must be prevented from being heard.

However, the attempt to stop the conference and the ‘public safety’ warning to students about the presence of AWL members on campus should give them pause for thought: for instance, Beth Redmond of the AWL was given space in Solidarity to “applaud” the forcible disbanding of the student rugby club at the London School of Economics for publishing a “sexist, classist and homophobic offensive leaflet” – on the grounds that handing out pieces of paper with nasty words on them is “threatening” and leads to “actual damage, physical and emotional”. Her short article did note that “the culture of banning societies can set a precedent for people to think that banning someone who says something you disagree with is the correct course of action”. However, in this case …10

Students should have the right to express their thoughts and opinions, regardless of whether we think what is being said has any artistic or intellectual merit and others should have the right to listen to them without the interference of self-appointed censors.

Any proposal to violate this right requires that we hand the power to somebody other than ourselves to determine what we can and cannot hear. It infantilises students, treating them as children who need protecting from the outside world and damaging their ability to function in it when they leave university. But all this is indicative of the disorientation of the student movement.

It is testament to the staggering incompetence and political confusion of groups like Student Broad Left that it could not bring a single motion or amendment to the NUS NEC in six months, while a social-imperialist outfit like the AWL managed to submit two. This illustrates the dire need for Marxist politics to be represented on the NUS NEC in order to challenge both incoherent, intersectionalite nonsense and social-imperialism.

As for the AWL, far from being, as it claims, some sort of enlightened underdog challenging an all-pervasive anti-imperialist common sense, it is thoroughly social-imperialist.


  2. See, for example,
  5. See
  6. ‘Political Islam, Christian fundamentalism, Marxism and the left today’
  10. ‘Tackling rugby club sexism’ SolidarityOctober 15 2014.

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