Over a thousand Kurdish people gathered in Trafalgar Square, London, on Saturday 1 November, taking part in a day of international solidarity for the Kurds fighting ISIS (Daesh, "Islamic State") in Kobane.
Among the small number of people at the protest who were not Kurdish were a handful of representatives of the Socialist Party and SWP. Both these groups have a problem.
Both campaign to stop the US bombing which is currently helping the Kurds resist IS. They do not just do as Solidarity and Workers' Liberty do - express no confidence in the US, refuse to endorse its campaign. They specifically campaign to stop the bombing, and often say that they do so because they oppose war (as if there would be no war with ISIS if the US abstained).
How did they explain their position to the Kurds in Trafalgar Square? They didn’t attempt to. The SWP had placards calling for "Tories Out"; the SP gave out a leaflet of 600 words which failed to say clearly that they call for a stop to US bombing, or justify that.
One organisation, two lines. One for the pro-US Kurds in Trafalgar Square; one for radical students and others dominated by knee-jerk anti-Americanism which they hope to recruit in Newcastle, Reading or Portsmouth.
The SWP – literally – ran away from our members at the protest, occasionally shouting “Zionist” over their shoulders in their traditional way of avoiding debate.
SPers argued the AWL supports imperialism; and that imperialist bombing in 2011 has made things worse for Libya, not better. Therefore the left should oppose western bombing in support of the Kurds in Kobane (which, by implication, will make matters worse for the Kurds in the long run).
So, is it true that the AWL “supports imperialist intervention”? Well, given that we want the Kurds to succeed in defeating IS, we are obliged to ask the following: If the US bombing stopped, what would happen? We think – as the news reports indicate - that if the US had not started air strikes the town would already have fallen, and the remaining residents and brave fighters would have been massacred. IS would have also won a major political victory which would immediately strengthen it.
So, if we raised the demand "Stop the US Bombing" seriously, and wanted to see the demand realised in reality (as distinct from being a bit of unserious anti-imperialist rhetoric; an advertising slogan for our organisation to persuade a few naïve people how terribly anti-establishment we are), we would have to want, and be able to justify, the consequences: Stop the bombing would mean the slaughter of Kobane’s Kurdish defenders and the defeat of their struggle.
So we refuse to raise the slogan, “Stop the bombing”. Does that make us “pro-imperialist”? No. Trace through the little argument above: what it amounts to is refusing to say something stupid, something would lead to an outrageous crime which would strengthen our enemies and wipe out our courageous allies. There is no call on the US/Britain to do anything; no endorsement of their policy.
But, say the SP, the US/Western bombing will (or may) lead to something worse in the future. In Libya today, say the SP, there is widespread chaos and warlord-rule.
However, the first effects of the overthrow of the bizarre and brutal Gaddafi dictatorship was an explosion of democracy and relatively free elections in 2012 in which liberals won and Islamists were marginal.
The SP want us to accept that their opposition to French-British-US bombs and missiles, which helped the rising against Gadaffi to victory, is justified by subsequent events. We don’t agree that the Libyan people were better off under Gadaffi. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s accept the point.
When French planes stopped Gadaffi’s tanks on the outskirts of the rebel held town of Benghazi in March 2011, they prevented the defeat of the rebels. At this point, in March 2011, all we could know is that the rebel victory meant the possibility of democracy and workers’ rights; the victory of Gadaffi meant a return to crazed dictatorship and the mass murder of the rebels. That was the choice that faced us. We had no crystal ball at hand, and that’s not how politics work.
Right now we have no guarantee that a victory against ISIS in Kobane will make life better for the Kurds one or five or ten years in the future. The choice now is between a massacre of our allies verses the victory of Islamist-fascists.
There is something silly about the SP’s method here. It is a game anyone can play. How about this: what happened to the Labour Party in the 1990s under Blair invalidates activity inside the Labour Party in the 1970s? Or this: what happened to Derek Hatton in the 1990s invalidates Militant’s recruitment of Hatton in the 1970s?
There’s nothing certain about the future. All we can do is make choices in the present.
However, perhaps there is something embedded in the current situation in Kobane that makes it inevitable, or very probable, that a US-aided victory in Kobane will make the Kurds worse off long-term. In which case the SP would have to spell out what.
But the SP don’t believe it themselves. Their leaflet states: “Further intervention of the US, UK and UN in the region could lead to more division and even strengthen IS.” The key word is “could". In contrast, it is certain that a defeat for IS and a victory for the Kurds in Kobane would immediately be highly positive from a working class, humanitarian and democratic standpoint. Who can tell about five years hence? All we can do to make a positive outcome more likely in the future is to help our side win now.
Moreover it is not true that every Western intervention has broadly negative consequences. In 1999 NATO bombing did prevent mass murder of Kosovars by Milosevic’s racist Serb imperialism; has led to Kosovan self-determination; did prompt a successful democratic revolt against Milosevic's regime in Serbia. The intervention of British forces after May 2000 did stop the civil war in Sierra Leone which was also, broadly, positive.
These statements are not pro-imperialist, just facts. Our justified estimate that the 1999 NATO bombing would help Kosova did not make us politically endorse or support the bombing. We maintained our irreconcilable class hostility to NATO.
The SP may respond that the big powers intervene only for their own reasons. That is true, but when the soldiers of a capitalist army come to put out a fire, revolutionaries don’t get in their way.
And finally, the Kurds do not have to look as far as West Africa and the Balkans for an example where democrats have been glad of Western help. In 1991, following the first Gulf War, the US-led coalition imposed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq which protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s revenge. The Kurds used the US’s help and what emerged was a proto-state and a democracy.
That was true despite the US’s overall policy and despite other crimes the US committed at the time (for example encouraging the Shia to rise across southern Iraq and then standing by as Saddam massacred them).
The slogan "stop the US bombing" equates to "let the Kurds die". So let’s not say it.
"In 1999 NATO bombing did prevent mass murder of Kosovars by Milosevic’s racist Serb imperialism; has led to Kosovan self-determination; did prompt a successful democratic revolt against Milosevic's regime in Serbia."
There were other effects.
"Immediately following NATO's arrival in Kosovo, there was widespread and systematic burning and looting of homes belonging to Serbs, Roma, and other minorities and the destruction of Orthodox churches and monasteries. This destruction was combined with harassment and intimidation designed to force people from their homes and communities. By late-2000 more than 210,000 Serbs had fled the province; most of them left in the first six weeks of the NATO deployment."
"Most seriously, as many as one thousand Serbs and Roma have been murdered or have gone missing since June 12, 1999. Criminal gangs or vengeful individuals may have been involved in some incidents since the war. But elements of the KLA are clearly responsible for many of these crimes. The desire for revenge provides a partial explanation, but there is also a clear political goal in many of these attacks: the removal from Kosovo of non-ethnic Albanians in order to better justify an independent state.
"Ethnic Albanians are not exempt from the violence. Albanians accused of "collaboration" with Serbian authorities have been beaten, abducted, or killed, notably in the municipalities of Prizren, Djakovica, and Klina. Attacks against political party activists, especially against the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), continued after municipal elections on October 28, 2000."
Then there's Libya, 2011. Libya. Gaddafi sucked, of course. But every sober observer realizes that there have been pogroms and repression against black Libyans and against migrants, numerous human rights violations by the government and various militias, and that the country is fragmenting and could break up further. Another "win" for Big Power intervention. Libya is now a a failed state.
As to NATO bombing in Syria and Iraq, and the question of what is to be done for the Kurds. Of course socialists should oppose the bombing. History -- recent history -- shows that direct military intervention by the big capitalist powers is inevitably disastrous. Raising the demand to arm the YPG, etc., is another matter. By all means, demand that the NATO powers give them weapons, with no strings attached.
NATO is incapable of engaging in anything that might reasonably be called a humanitarian intervention. Like an inverted Midas, everything it touches turns to shit. Far from passively supporting "humanitarian intervention," we are duty bound as democrats and socialists to oppose it at all times. To fail to do so is to trust that an notorious arsonist is going to put out a fire.
Your arguments don't make sense.
The logic on Kosova seems to be that it didn't matter if Milosevic was able to destroy the Kosovar nation, because once he was stopped some other bad stuff happened (which it did). Are you arguing that these things cancelled out the victory of the Kosovars not being destroyed, ie that it would have been just as bad if Kosova had been crushed? And are you arguing the the Kosovars didn't have a right to independence?
If you are, ok, let's argue. But if not, then how does your argument about the NATO intervention follow?
On Libya, why do you think the bad things that have happened (also covered by us - eg see here) were a result of the NATO intervention, rather than of the political character of the forces on the ground?
(Btw, the Egyptian revolution hasn't worked out very well either. Therefore, it wouldn't have mattered if it was crushed at the start?)
Again, it seems that you are really making arguments about the movements on the ground, not about imperialist intervention. But rather than making these arguments straightforwardly, you imply that things went wrong because of intervention, but without explaining your analysis.
On Kurdistan: the Western powers are, clearly, arsonists in the region. And therefore when their bombs fall on ISIS units outside Kobane, we should oppose that? Even though the Kurdish forces say it is helping them? How does that follow?
It's not a question of trusting them, but of not raising a slogan which, if realised, will make things worse for the people we want to win.
Lastly, there clearly is a relevant and important distinction between bombing and sending weapons. But to make it an absolute distinction, as I think you do, seems to me metaphysical. Both are "intervention".
My point is very simple: direct military intervention (bombing, ground troops, etc.) by the big capitalist powers takes situations which are horrible and makes them worse.
Furthermore, anything which strengthens the ability of the big capitalist powers to engage in direct military intervention is a very bad thing which increases the overall amount of misery in the world.
As Marxists we're obligated to oppose direct military intervention by our own capitalist states because we want to encourage the workers of these countries to see these states as barriers to their freedom which must be done away with ("smashed").
But it doesn't *always* make them worse, does it? Wasn't the national survival of the Kosovars, even with all the terrible things that happened, better than their annihilation by Serbia? Isn't the victory of Kobane better than its fall? In both cases, how do the negatives of imperial intervention outweigh the positive change in the outcome? And how are the negatives you cite a direct result of intervention, rather than the nature of the forces on the ground?
There is a good reason not to advocate any trust or confidence in the imperialists, which of course we don't. But:
"In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace."
(Leon Trotsky, 'Learn to think', 1938)
Of course the Kosovar Albanians were oppressed and have the right to national self-determination. But I've never seen the AWL discuss any of the following:
1) That the initial result of NATO bombing was a massive flight of refugees from Kosova and an overall escalationof anti-Kosovar violence;
2) That most of the KLA -- which, as I recall, you called for outside arming of -- was just as committed to ethnic cleansing as the Milosevic government, and carried it out to the best of its ability;
3) That the Romani are an oppressed minority within the current Republic of Kosova (again, nothing by the AWL on this as far as I know),
4) That NATO in any case was OPPOSED to Kosovar independence (not a minor fact!).
I recommend this article, which represents my point of view at the time, and now: http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/905
And isn't it easy to see, now, that the "humanitarian intervention" by the U.S. in 1999 acted as a "test run" for the far more disastrous "humanitarian intervention" of 2003? (Yes, it wasn't originally "sold" as a humanitarian intervention -- but soon that became the pretext.) And wasn't the outcome of the NATO/Serbia war the further strengthening of NATO, the prolonging of its existence, something which all Marxists by definition must oppose, as NATO can never be anything other than an imperialist military machine?
What corresponds best to the interests of the proletariat is the dissolution of NATO. When avowed Marxists give tacit critical support to NATO in selected instances, this doesn't help.
We have discussed these issues in some detail, for instance in this editorial "Yes, independence for Kosova!" (2007) It is worth reading on many points raised here, in fact.
It begins: "That the people of Kosova should have their right to independence respected is good, and a damning condemnation of those on the left who backed Milosevic in the 1990s. Many things about the way independence is happening are bad."
Read it! More soon.
"That the initial result of NATO bombing was a massive flight of refugees from Kosova and an overall escalation of anti-Kosovar violence".
We made exactly that point too, but it doesn't follow, at all, that an end to the bombing once it had started would have resulted in a better outcome. Once the escalation had begun, if the bombing had stopped after a few days, the Serbian regime would have finished the job, wouldn't it? I don't see how you can deny that.
"That most of the KLA -- which, as I recall, you called for outside arming of -- was just as committed to ethnic cleansing as the Milosevic government, and carried it out to the best of its ability."
And therefore the Kosovars had no right to independence? How could such a right have been put into practice, in the actual situation, without them being armed?
"That NATO in any case was OPPOSED to Kosovar independence (not a minor fact!)."
Again, a point we made many times. So are you saying there was no difference? The NATO intervention helped produce, eventually, Kosovan independence, whereas a victory for Serbia would have destroyed Kosova as a nation. So this is an important fact, extra reason not to trust or support NATO, etc, but I don't see how it's relevant to our disagreement.
The Serbia/Kosova intervention was preceded by the first Gulf War and followed by 9/11. Surely these had rather more impact on the invasions on Iraq and Afghanistan than it did? And of course, there were mass movements against those Western wars, whereas there wasn't against the intervention in the Balkans - for good reason I think. The left can't become an effective force by ignoring all nuances and issues and mechanically repeating a flat line in every situation.
Yes, of course we should be for the disbanding of NATO. That is good reason not to support it vocally or tacitly. Except that is not what we did. If you read back over everything we wrote, we clearly and repeatedly advocated no trust in NATO and explained what it represented.