Is the slogan "Troops Out" a matter of principle? The case of Iraq

Submitted by martin on 17 April, 2017 - 4:44 Author: Sean Matgamna

Edited version of an article from a debate with Barry Finger about slogans in relation to Iraq.

Before, during, and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we, the AWL, said what needed to be said. AWL was against the USA's war in Iraq. We preached “no political trust or confidence” in the American, British, or any ruling class, in their states, their politicians, or their armies. We analysed the motives of the American, British and other ruling classes in their dealings with Iraq; solidarised with the new Iraqi labour movement wherever it clashed with the occupiers; indicted US/UK misdeeds unsparingly; said to those Iraqi socialists whom we can reach, and to people in Britain, that they could not and should not rely on the US and UK to bring democracy to Iraq. Long before the 2003 invasion, we pointed out that the occupation of Iraq would not curb Islamist terrorism. We said that the peoples of Iraq must have self-determination. We maintained a stance of hostility to the troops and we did not call on the British and Americans to stay. That was enough.

The behaviour of the occupying forces — the senseless brutality and slaughter of Iraqi civilians, the economic looting by the US rulers, the all-shaping arrogance, the casual deployment of lethal firepower against civilians, and the sheer all-round epoch-defining ineptitude — that piled up enormous barriers against any “benign” scenario.

We pointed that out. But we refused, between 2003 and the 2008 US agreement to withdraw (completed in 2011), to raise a “demand”, Troops Out Now, whose likely, calculable, practical consequences we did not want. A "precipitous" withdrawal would have maximised the chances of destruction for the Iraqi labour movement. It might well have brought on a catastrophe that would have aborted all the possibilities that the rising labour movement was opening for the working class of Iraq. (And for the region, perhaps, where, though there is a powerful working class, there is scarcely any labour movement except in Israel — at best, some elements of a labour movement among the Palestinians, in Lebanon, and in Egypt).

Democracy is a principle; but self-determination is only one of its forms; Troops Out Now in turn is only one of self-determination’s possible immediate, sloganised, expressions. The only reason for not deciding in 2003-8 that the best thing was that the US, Britain, etc. should immediately just get out was that that would calculably be to give up all hope for anything less bad than the scenario of civil war and destruction of the labour movement. Things may yet go that far. But it was not for us to shout, in effect: Bring it on!

Everything suggested that “immediate” withdrawal of the foreign troops would be likely to lead to the destruction of the Iraqi labour movement by the forces of Ba’thist-fascist and clerical-fascist reaction. Any distinction between sloganising for Troops Out Now and being for the victory of the reactionary Iraqi “resistance” was largely a notional one. The slogan Troops Out Now was inescapably, a siding with the reactionary resistance. Who else would gain “now” from the troops disappearing “now”? (The addled left understood that, at least, and duly backed the "resistance").

A concerned friend, one who did not share the politics of the addled left which backed the Iraqi "resistance", might ask, regarding the call for "Troops Out Now" in 2003-8: by refusing to call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupation forces, wasn't AWL seeking a social and political gain from the crime of imperialism without actually advocating it.

Wasn't the slogan “Troops Out of Iraq Now” a matter of principle? If we let calculations about the practical, concrete — Iraqi! — meaning of “Troops Out Now”, inhibit us from demanding “the immediate withdrawal of imperialist forces”, then weren't we:

• engaging in an impermissible “ideological compromise” with imperialism;

• engaging in “an interim appeasement programme towards the status quo on this side of the imperialist battle lines”;

• engaging in an objective united front with imperialism; making a "provisional and tactical military reliance on imperialism”;

Ours was not to reason, calculate, or calibrate, and still less to decide on slogans and “demands” according to an analysis of the concrete situation and what they mean, or will most likely mean, in that situation

That argument conflated socialist propaganda and socialist agitation. It resided up in the clouds somewhere, far too high above the ground. It displayed too little real, practical concern for the Iraqi labour movement. It blurred and fudged what for us was, in Iraq as in all other situations, the central question — the working class, its labour movement, and their fate.

At issue was not whether socialists should give the US/ UK positive political support or political confidence, or forget for now who, socially and politically, and what they are, and who and what we are. ever do any of these things. At issue was: do we gauge the concrete meaning of a slogan like Troops Out Now, and decided on its use accordingly? Are there slogans that are above and outside of all such political calculations? Must we on principle raise a slogan whose calculable practical consequences we did not want?. Do we use such slogans as tools or as a set of binding instructions which we blindly obey and serve?

If it is obligatory to call for "Troops Out Now", that implies that if the new Iraqi labour movement had benefited from the US-British destruction of the Saddam regime — and undeniably it had since 2003 — then it would be better had it never come into existence than that it should thus benefit from imperialism. The Iraqi labour activists would just have to be stoical, bear their fate bravely, and understand that though we reach the same conclusions as the "reactionary anti-imperialists” in shouting for “Troops Out Now” and thereby succouring the Sunni supremacists and clerical fascists, our motive was different — to put ourselves in the best position to resist the “gravitational pull” of imperialism and the threat that we might wind up going over to Blairism (as a few of our one-time comrades in fact did).

Brutus and Cassius both stab Caesar, but for different motives. If Brutus explains to the dying man that he was motivated by higher goals than those of the jealous Cassius and his friends, Caesar will understand and die happy…

The issue could be restated, without too much exaggeration: should we turn our backs on capitalism and start a clean new society somewhere from scratch? Should we adopt the approach of the 19th century devotees of building socialist colonies in some unpolluted wilderness? Our entire world — the world Marxists say is the basis from which the working class can make socialism — is built on the crimes of class society. The cities of Liverpool and Bristol were built on the slave trade. Early British capitalism accumulated its wealth from the slave trade, piracy against the Spanish pirates and plunderers of Mexico and Peru, and from pillage and genocidal wars in 16th and 17th century Ireland. European civilisation, on the achievements of which we propose to build socialism, rests on a gigantic mound of human skulls and bones! We cannot in retrospect re-do the history that led us to where we are.

Advanced capitalism, the dominant force in the world, amidst its horrors, and sometimes by way of its horrors, has done things on which socialists have to build and without which socialism cannot be built. World War Two and its aftermath are the clearest example. In Europe, American and British imperialism — consider said all that needs to be said about their reactionary policies, their enslavement of colonies, their atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, etc. — cut down the totalitarian Nazi geno-imperialism and recreated bourgeois democracy.

In 1940 the labour movement in Europe was everywhere — except in Switzerland, Sweden, Britain, and Ireland — smashed, reduced to weak underground movements, and most of them dominated by Stalinists. Modern Europe, with its tremendously powerful and potentially world-transforming labour movement, re-emerged under the wing of British and American imperialism. Better things would have been possible had we been stronger, had Stalinism not existed? Yes, and our comrades advocated those things then. They were right to advocate them and counterpose them to what the "progressive" bourgeois-imperialists did. Better, in those times, had the European working class asserted itself as an independent “class for itself” overthrown capitalism, and driven out, or disrupted by way of agitation and propaganda among the soldiers, the occupying armies of Roosevelt-Truman, Churchill-Attlee, and Stalin. Yet it would have been metaphysics-saturated political nonsense for European socialists (and socialists in Japan) to have foresworn seeking social and political gain from the bourgeois-democratic systems and the re-risen labour movements because they were “tainted” by their origins in the victory of American and British imperialism.

The social and political system in Western Europe by, say, 1949 registered immense progress, not direct socialist progress, but immense progress nevertheless, compared to 1940 or 1944, above all for the potentialities it opened up for the working-class movement. One of the things that derailed post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyism” was its incapacity to understand that and adjust to it. Our attitude to such progress cannot be different from our attitude to economic progress under the capitalist system which nonetheless we want to overthrow, which we believe should and could have been overthrown long ago, and which we continue to work to overthrow.

We extend to the rulers of the USA and Britain no political credit in advance. We criticise them from our own socialist and consistently democratic point of view for what they do and don’t do, and for what they license, acquiesce in, or fail to oppose. We maintain towards them the stance of mortally hostile communist opponents of bourgeois society.

Nonetheless, we recognise and utilise the imperialist-fostered bourgeois-democratic progress in Western Europe - just as we want to use the capitalist and "imperialist" improvement in economic techniques and labour productivity to build a socialist alternative to capitalism.

Could we in principle refuse to hope for advantage for the working class or the socialists out of anything advanced capitalism ("imperialism") does in the world? Surely we can not. Another way to look at this question is to pose it in terms of Stalinism. Could we properly hope for advantage or progress out of the work of Stalinism in Russia, in Eastern Europe, or elsewhere? The Orthodox Trotskyists answered that question with a clear-cut yes. A "political revolution" was necessary first, but the working class would build on the positive economic achievements of the Russian and East European Stalinist tyrannies. There was a great deal wrong with their accounts of what Stalinism was. But in advocating working-class revolution against Stalinism ("political revolution") they did not dream of proposing that the Stalinist-built industry be dismantled and scrapped, and that society should start again. An absurdity. A version of stop the world, I want to get off; roll back the film of history, I want to start from somewhere else. A variant of the joke about the man asked for directions who said: "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here at all".

No more can or should we propose the erasure of the achievements of monopoly capitalism in the USA or Europe. The Orthodox Trotskyists advocated the seizure of political power, and power over the economic assets - the destruction of the social and economic power of the Stalinist oligarchy - as we advocate working-class revolution and the transfer and transformation of the existing capitalist economic assets. The Workers Party and the ISL had politics much more true to the reality of the Stalinist states than the Orthodox Trotskyists had. But they had no different proposal to offer about what to do with the "achievements" of Stalinism. In the mid 1950s they argued that all-pervasive political democracy - the destruction of the autocracy, its social-political rule, and its state - would, per se, transform the economy. In terms of the economy, was that attempting to "benefit from Stalinism and Stalinist imperialism"? And, in any case, weren't they right? What other reality-grounded program could they have put forward for the Stalinist societies?

Could the AWL realistically expect to withstand the gravitational pull that such "ideological compromises" exerted over previous generations of socialist militants? Wasn't the logic, if not yet the general politics, of the AWL's refusal to raise the slogan "Troops Out Now" the same as that of groups like the Blairite, neo-connish political turncoats in Labour Friends of Iraq? And of Max Shachtman and his comrades in effectively supporting the USA in Vietnam?

The great pressure on Third Camp socialists such as Shachtman and his friends, pushing them towards allying with the bourgeoisie, was that Russian Stalinism was the second power in the world. It was the enemy of most of the achievements in history of bourgeois civilisation at its best - free speech, freedom for civic organisations to exist, etc. - all the things that allowed labour movements to exist and are prerequisites of socialism. The Third Camp socialists did not deny that on all those counts advanced capitalism was better than Stalinism and preferable to it, which they defined as the looming form of "barbarism". Socialism, in their view, was the only long-term alternative to that barbarism; yet advanced capitalism was the only large force already in existence standing athwart Stalinist domination of the world. Tremendous pressure to side with what they explicitly, and rightly, saw as the better of the two competing systems bore down on them from the end of World War Two onwards. No such logic bore down on us over Iraq. A similar logic - the pressure to opt for the lesser evil in what is already available - did account for the moral, intellectual, and political collapse of Alan Johnson and his sorry coven of political turncoats in the Labour Friends of Iraq. It was not their refusal to use one slogan, Troops Out Now, which led them to stop saying what needed to be said against the bourgeoisie and against capitalism.

Is advanced capitalism just "one reactionary mass", or can it sometimes and in some ways do "progressive" work? Modern history, for over 100 years, consists not only of horrors such as wars, repressions, and famines in parts of the world, but also of “progressive” things done by advanced capitalism, from the destruction of fascist totalitarianism to the overthrow, in a different way, of Stalinist totalitarianisms. Tremendous and life-expanding things have been achieved under advanced capitalism, including two general technological revolutions. The productivity of labour, on which the possibility of socialism depends, has been vastly increased. In no circumstances do we give the big capitalist powers credence, allegiance, or confidence in advance. We put forward our own working-class program, and counterpose it to theirs, in every situation. Working-class democratic socialism would have been better and achieved more. What advanced capitalism yields in the way of progress is always at risk of being annulled by its characteristic crises, including wars. But we cannot simply call it "imperialism" and say "no" to the modern world — the world shaped and reshaped, and still being shaped and reshaped, by advanced capitalism.

Here, as in our attitude to the concentration and centralisation of capital, or to bourgeois efforts towards desirable objectives (like the European Union and European unity), we have to operate within a capitalism that both blights and retards progress as compared to the socialism which is possible and necessary, but nevertheless does progressive work. It has done, in its own brutal, predator’s, profit-first, way, things that take society forward and the immediate alternative to which is reactionary - for example, a return to the walled-off nation-states of pre-EU Europe. We do not and should not, in opposing advanced capitalism, as we do when we counterpose to them the possibilities of socialism, also “oppose” and contradict what we want, or give support, or implicit support, to what would take us backward.

You cannot be a Marxist and argue for a slogan on the grounds of its usefulness to you in resisting uncongenial pressures, apart from whether it makes sense in terms of reality. That way lies confusion, irresponsibility, and irrelevance. If we were to resist the “pull” of the powers that rule the world only by closing our eyes to facts, possibilities, certainties, and modern history — if we felt obliged to pretend that everything about the bourgeoisie and bourgeois society is reactionary, and that there is nothing more reactionary in the political world — then we would be paying too high a political price for anti-imperialist, or even anti-capitalist, virtue. We would also be setting ourselves up to collapse if and when awareness of a more complex reality breaks through — a very common experience with naive and even not-so-naive revolutionaries over most of the 20th century.

We felt no gravitational pull towards the bourgeoisie or its system as a result of recognising that this system, towards which we are mortally antagonistic, is not always and everywhere, and not in every single thing, only or simply reactionary; and that there are in some situations, things more reactionary things. The American big-capitalist bourgeoisie demolished Hitler's fascism and installed bourgeois democracy in post-1945 western Europe and Japan. If that was reactionary, then it was so only compared to what the working class could have achieved if better educated and better mobilised; but it was not so educated and so mobilised. In fact, of course, independent working-class politics was only a peripheral force in that situation, as it has been so far in Iraq.

Recognising such facts does not affect our fundamental hostility to capitalism and to bourgeois society. It sharpens and sustains our hostility — hostility to what they really are, as they really are, unalloyed with the patently false idea that everything in the bourgeois-dominated world is reactionary today (or has been since how far back? 1900? 1912? 1917?), or is the most reactionary thing possible.

Independent socialists are rightly chary of making positive demands on the big powers. For example, we would not try to tell them positively what to do next in Iraq. We couldn’t "tell" the US what we would like them to do to ensure the best outcome, because we knew that they act for their own reasons and objectives, which are not ours. We had no illusions about that, and did not want to teach others to have illusions.

We did not, and did not want to, sloganise positive “orders” to them — “get more Iraqis killed”, “get Iraqi trade unionists shot or blown up”, "get the nascent labour movement extirpated". But we could, and on principle were obliged to, shout the same “orders” to them in negative form? Again — why?

Because some of our slogans are not slogans, formulas whose use is regulated by what they might mean in a given situation, but fetishes outside of history, of politics, of society? We, AWL, refuse to take that approach. I know of no respect-worthy Marxist in the past who did. We must not obliterate the necessary distinction between self-determination as a basic programmatic principle for us and one of its possible immediate agitational translations, Troops Out Now.

In part the problem here is the dominant style of left and pseudo-left politics now — tiny propaganda groups, with no power to shape events, shouting “instructions” for immediate action to governments, and made reckless by their own powerlessness, because they know what they say will not shape, or in most cases even marginally affect, what happens. That style does not, I think, among Marxists, go back further than the Korean war and the movement against the Vietnam war. After 1945, for example, the Trotskyists demanded self-determination for Germany and that foreign troops should leave, but as far as I know they didn’t do that often (if at all) in the form of demands for “Troops Out Now”.

Lenin’s discussion in What Is To Be Done (1902) of the relationship between our theory and propaganda and “calls to action” says a lot to the habits of the left and pseudo-left today.

“To single out a third sphere, or third function, of practical activity, and to include in this function 'calling the masses to certain concrete actions', is sheer nonsense, because the 'call', as a single act, either naturally or inevitably supplements the theoretical tract, propagandist pamphlet and agitational speech, or represents a purely executive function...”

Did the call “Troops Out Now” flow from an all-round analysis of Iraq? The situation was one in which the Iraqi labour movement might (we’d say, would) be destroyed, and sooner rather than later, if the occupation forces scuttled in a “precipitous” withdrawal. To make a particular “call to action” our fixed point is to turn Marxist politics upside down. We make no “call to action” on the working class, and still less on anyone else, that does not spin organically and naturally out of our theory, propaganda, programme, and concrete analysis of a situation.

In short: that does not make sense. The meaning of slogans is determined variously by different sets of concrete circumstances. The meaning and implications of a particular form of words differs from circumstance to circumstance, and from time to time. Our overall picture of a situation, and of the forces and possibilities in it, determines what “calls to action” are appropriate or inappropriate. The separation or cutting loose of “calls to action” from our programme and the general complex of Marxist ideas has been one of the long-term agents of destruction that has worked its way through, like syphilis, groups such as the SWP-UK. It has produced what might be called “apparatus Marxism”, “focus-group Marxism”, “party manager’s Marxism” or, to use an older expression for such things, “wire-puller’s Marxism”. It reduces Marxist politics to demagogy.

If a slogan (“Troops Out Now”) carries with it the extreme likelihood of disaster for the labour movement, then it contradicts our overall concerns. We do not raise it, or we do not raise it in a form which if realised implies disaster. The general principle and propagandist “position” — that is, the general explanation rather than “call to action” — is enough. We are not obliged to translate the explanation into a “call to action” which will promote forces like the Iraqi “resistance” and help them to turn the would-be summary formula against the fundamental ideas and concerns behind it.

For Marxists there is no slogan that we are obliged to treat as a fetish, something above and outside of its own concrete meaning. The very idea that there might be is ridiculous! Principles are more or less immutable. How they are translated into slogans or agitational axes is changeable. Sometimes they can't be expressed in any summary "call to action". To refuse to translate a "principle" into concrete "demands" is sometimes to make of the principle a lifeless abstraction? Yes. But you can only judge where that is being done by way of analysis of the practical meaning of the possible "concrete" slogans. Slogans are selected not according to the idea that they are self-sufficient principles, but for their immediate effect, concrete application, and practical meaning. We do not do as the “apparatus Marxists” do and, for calculations of organisational advantage or "catching a mood", raise slogans antagonistic to our programme and principles (and, in this case, to the interests of the Iraqi labour movement). The idea that we are obliged to raise or hold to a slogan irrespective of its practical meaning — that, again, is absurd.

In 1920 the Bolsheviks had, as the heirs of Russian Marxism, 40 years — and Lenin, two decades — of sincerely fighting for Poland’s self-determination and its right to independence. I don’t know if that ever took the form of slogans for Russian “Troops Out Now” (I doubt it). But when the Red Army defeated the invading Polish army and chased it deep into Poland — with the intention, in Lenin’s expression, of prodding the German revolution with the bayonet — the slogan “Russian troops out” would have meant not the “democratic affirmation” of self-determination for Poland, but radical opposition to the interests of the Russian workers’ revolution, to its army, and to the international working-class revolution, that of the Polish workers too.

It makes no difference here whether Lenin was right or wrong in his calculations about the advisability of the Red Army pressing into Poland. Events seemed to prove Trotsky’s contrary calculations correct. But the Russian workers’ government had a right in principle to refuse to make a fetish of Polish self-determination. Something higher was involved — the interests of the working class and its revolution. Polish self-determination could easily have been restored — and, if the German workers had taken power, possibly on a higher level, with the Polish working class in power.

The point here is not to compare the US army of today with the Red Army of 1920, but to see that slogans cannot stand apart from an overall Marxist analysis of a situation and above it. To put it absurdly again: slogans cannot stand higher than their own practical meaning! To say that we are obliged to raise Troops Out Now as an affirmation of democracy and of revolutionary opposition to the USA and its British helpers, irrespective of the consequences for the Iraqi labour movement, could only make political sense if “Troops Out Now” embodied a commitment for us higher than the working class, its movement, and their immediate fate.

Of course to resist the gravitational pull of the bourgeoisie is a to-be-or-not-to-be question for socialists; but that can be achieved not by mechanically repeating set slogans, but only by having an overall picture which determines our basic posture towards the ruling power even when it does, or may be doing, something that is, or may be, itself desirable.

While honestly evaluating and recording what is happening - as we do in all things - we give the bourgeoisie no positive political support; we give them no credence or credit to go on and consistently do “what’s right”; we distinguish between our reasons for wanting, or assessing as positive, something that they are doing, and their own reasons, their overall programme, their “context” for it. In short we continually point out who and what they are, who and what we are, where the best interests of the working class lies, and what the working class itself must be.

Only thus can we create and sustain a rounded, realistic, revolutionary world view in those whom we reach. You cannot create or sustain a lasting proletarian class consciousness on the basis of falsely negative accounts of what in a “good” moment the bourgeoisie may do, any more than you can do it by letting the “good” moment, real or mere hope, blur your overall picture of what they are and make you forget what we are.

Suppose, for example, that the US and Britain had already carried through their “project” in Iraq and created a functioning bourgeois democracy there? Would that have changed our fundamental view of what they are and what, mainly, they and those they serve do in the world?

Would it inhibit us from encouraging and helping Iraqi workers to use the new bourgeois-democratic openings to fight against Bush and Blair? To replace theirs by a working-class socialist world? It would not. Not at all. At most it would imply an amendment to our view of them to explain why “in this period” they are doing this relatively good work — exporting and expanding bourgeois democracy. Would that blot out our overall picture of what they do in terms of expanding and increasing exploitation? No, it would not.

Would it imply that we extend them credit to do equally good work of expanding bourgeois democracy somewhere else? Not for us, it wouldn’t. The same bourgeois-democratic USA and Britain that — for their own reasons, as Germany’s rivals — brought down Hitler, simultaneously, and for three decades, sustained Franco, the fascist who had smashed Spanish bourgeois democracy and the Spanish labour movement with the support of Hitler and Mussolini.

What the experience of a Bush or Blair carrying through some large reform that we want, or anyway see as progressive and important — again, say, establishing bourgeois democracy in Iraq — what that would do to our thinking, of course, would be to introduce the idea that they might now behave similarly elsewhere. That would not incline us where we had the option of independent action to rely on them. It would not inhibit us from telling people in other countries to which their attention was directed neither to trust them nor to rely on them, nor to give them positive political support. As Trotsky said, "we are the party of irreconcilable opposition". As Liebknecht and Luxemburg said, "not a man, not a penny, for their system".

Any attitude that pushes the immediate fate of the Iraqi labour movement to the margin of our concerns, or leads us to fatalistically accept that the labour movement must be sacrificed to something else, something higher — "anti-imperialism", or “self-determination for Iraq” understood falsely as Troops Out Now and damn the consequences — any such attitude is radically disoriented and disorienting.

Marxists tell the truth of situations, in the first place to ourselves. We face the practical implications of our slogans candidly and squarely. We are concerned at all times with the labour movement and the working class. We would have to have very special and very good reasons indeed to even seriously consider accepting something else as higher in the scale of things and more important than the fate of the working class. “Anti-imperialism”, or vicarious “national liberation”, is not from our point of view, a self-sufficient world outlook. The problem with much of the “left” is that for them, it is.