How activists were turned against the Iraqi unions

By Martin Thomas

The Socialist Workers Party, a major force in the organisation both of the European Social Forum and of the Stop The War Coalition, has condemned the shouting-down of Subhi al Mashadani, general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, at the ESF on 15 October.

According to Socialist Worker (16 October): “A couple of dozen people, with no connection to the anti-war movement, broke up the meeting through barracking and intimidation. They ignored appeals from, and a vote by, over 2,000 people in the audience for the meeting to take place”.

But SWP members should look back at the chain of agitation which led up to 15 October.

It started with a violent denunciation of the IFTU by George Galloway in the Morning Star of 2 October. Galloway described the IFTU’s representative in Britain, Abdullah Muhsin, as an “Iraqi Quisling” — an Iraqi equivalent of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist who became “Minister President” of Norway under the Nazi occupation during World War Two.

Why? Because at the Labour Party conference the previous week, Abdullah Muhsin had helped the New Labour leadership persuade British union leaders not to support a critical motion calling for early withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and instead to back a bland National Executive statement.

What was special about Galloway’s reaction was not that he disagreed with the IFTU representative’s choices at the conference — many others disagreed, including us on Solidarity — but that he seized on them to condemn the IFTU root and branch, and to equate its representatives with fascists.

Socialist Worker of that week had already published an editorial — personally signed, in a departure from the paper’s usual practice, by its new editor Chris Bambery — justifying the hostage-taking by the political-Islamist militias in Iraq by analogy with the anti-Nazi Resistance in World War Two:

“During the Second World War the British and US governments appealed to the people of occupied Europe to take up arms against the Nazi invaders.

“They condoned actions such as assassinations, bombs without warnings and the summary execution of informers and traitors”.

On Sunday 10 October the officers of the Stop The War Coalition circulated on email a statement written on 8 October. After piously claiming that “STWC has always refrained from taking any position on the internal development of Iraq”, it vehemently took sides in those “internal developments” by denouncing the IFTU.

It did not question that the IFTU is a genuine workers’ organisation — “the IFTU is one of a number of trade unions and workers’ organisations in Iraq”, it noted — nor mention that other trade union organisations in Iraq, while rejecting the IFTU’s support for the Allawi government, share the IFTU’s hostility to the Islamist militias.

The IFTU’s “lesser evil” position reflects the general philosophy of the Communist Party of Iraq, the leading political force in the IFTU. After the 1958 revolution in Iraq, the CP supported the Qassem military regime against the Ba’thists. When the Ba’thists seized power in 1963, thousands of CPers were killed or jailed. The CP nevertheless wriggled its way back into a junior place in the Ba’thist government for a while in the 1970s, before once again falling victim to renewed Ba’thist persecution.

The IFTU is still a trade union organisation. But the STWC went on to condemn not only the IFTU but any attempt at trade union organisation in Iraq.

“With regard to the IFTU, the STWC condemns… its view that genuinely independent trade unionism in Iraq can develop under a regime of military occupation”.

So what is it possible to develop? Genuinely independent sectarian militias! Genuinely independent movements for an Islamic state! And vain hopes that if triumphant those Islamist militias will allow the “genuinely independent trade unions” which are allegedly impossible now?

The STWC statement concluded by endorsing the “struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary” against the occupation. Issued the day after hostage Ken Bigley was ceremonially beheaded, this amounted to an endorsement of such methods.

By the time the STWC statement appeared in the Morning Star on 11 October, that phrase, “by whatever means they find necessary”, had been cut out.

But Galloway, Bambery, and STWC convenor (and SWP member) Lindsey German between them had developed an agitation to justify not only the disruption at the ESF, but far worse, against the alleged “Quislings” of the IFTU, or against any trade unionist in Iraq.

The final twist was provided by SWP leader John Rees at the Respect rally on 16 October, when he told us that the World War Two analogy used by Galloway and Bambery originated with… members of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army whom Rees had met in Beirut in September.

They had told him that they are “defending their country” and that to understand their methods we should think of the battles of the French and Italian Resistance during World War Two.

“I don’t propose to lecture the Iraqi people on the methods they use, and neither should we”, declared Rees.

Rees did not indulge in the pretence adopted by some British left-wingers who want to support Iraq’s “resistance” militias, that groups like the Mahdi Army or the Tawhid and Jihad group of al-Zarqawi are only a minority, and that much of the resistance is democratic and secular. No: he flatly identified with the Mahdi Army, and endorsed its ideology, which presumably he had passed on to Galloway and Bambery.

SWP members who agree that shouting down Subhi al Mashadani was wrong — plain wrong, and not just unfortunate because it could cause embarrassment between the SWP and British trade union leaders who helped fund the ESF — should think again about where their “support the Iraqi resistance” agitation is leading them.

Read more on this site:
Stop The War statement and a reply
The shouting down of Subhi al Mashadani