Why socialists can not support the USA in Iraq
1. Ex-Marxist Blairites and “Reactionary Anti-Imperialists”
2. Their case for backing Blair
3. What should revolutionary socialists do in Iraq?
4. Socialists and the “political process” in Iraq
5. Support for lesser evils?
6. Not a penny for this system!
7. Supervising history?
8. Progressive Imperial Democrats?
9. Did the bourgeoisie win “bourgeois democracy”?
10. The Russian experience
11. No imperialism? Nothing but imperialism?
12. Capitulators of today and yesterday
“The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflicts to oblige all humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society, or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obligated to become a Marxist; no one is obligated to swear by Lenin’s name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed toward this, that the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends.”
Leon Trotsky, Writings Supplement 1939-40.
“No matter what the good intentions of the British parsons, or of sentimental Kautsky, may have been [the result]… is a most reactionary method of consoling the masses … distracting their attention from the sharp antagonisms and acute problems of the present era, directing it towards illusory perspectives.”
V I Lenin, Imperialism
“We are not a government party; we are the party of irreconcilable opposition... Our tasks... we realise not through the medium of bourgeois governments, but exclusively through the education of the masses through agitation, through explaining to the workers what they should defend and what they should overthrow. Such a ‘defence’ cannot give immediate miraculous results. But we do not even pretend to be miracle workers. As things stand, we are a revolutionary minority. Our work must be directed so that the workers on whom we have influence should correctly appraise events, not permit themselves to be caught unawares, and prepare the general sentiment of their own class for the revolutionary solution of the tasks confronting us.”
Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism
Ex-Marxist Blairites and “Reactionary Anti-Imperialists”
Those who campaign for solidarity with the Iraqi labour movement, as well as appealing to British trade unionists’ bedrock reflex of solidarity with other labour movements, have to explain complex political issues.
Iraq is occupied by foreign troops, whose governments say they will eventually retire into the background, handing power to a self-governing bourgeois-democratic Iraqi regime. The so-called “anti-imperialist resistance” are thoroughgoing reactionaries, whose concern is to prevent democratic reform and the loss of power by the old ruling Sunni elite minority. The Iraqi labour movement, long suppressed by the Saddam regime, is at an early stage of renaissance, and probably could not survive the victory of the “anti-imperialists.” For now, the occupation forces sustain the conditions in which the Iraqi labour movement is starting to rise to its feet. This list does not exhaust the complexities.
It is necessary to make socialist sense of all these facets of Iraq after Saddam.
Two political currents in the British labour movement, one on the “left”, the other on the right, in their different ways, make this work more difficult.
The demagogue “reactionary anti-imperialists” — “Respect”, the SWP, George Galloway, etc — present the greatest immediate obstacle. Defining themselves not by what they are for — they no longer seem to know what socialists and Marxists are for — but negatively, by what they are against (Bush, Blair and the USA), they back the anti-working class, reactionary, Sunni-supremacist “resistance”. They are discussed in a separate article in this collection.
But there are also the Blairites. Some of them are cynics. Others want what is best for the people of Iraq and for the Iraqi working class. (For example, the reform-socialist, Ann Clwyd MP). And, on the fringe of the Blairites, there are the political mirror-images of the “reactionary anti-imperialists” — born-again ex-Marxist Blairites, who, having themselves decided to enlist with the big battalions of Bush and Blair, insist that solidarity with the Iraqi trade unions implies support for Bush and Blair, and for the Communist Party of Iraq, which supports them.
To the foul cross-class popular front of the reactionary anti-imperialists with Ba’thists, clerical fascists, Saddamists, Sunni supremacists and other reactionaries in Iraq, the ex-Marxist Blairites counterpose not independent working-class politics, but a different popular front — a cross-class popular front with Blair, Bush, Iraqi bourgeois-democrats, Shia clerics, and the Communist Party of Iraq!
Obsessed with the spectacle of the “reactionary anti-imperialists”, they seek political safety and security by inverting the politics of the SWP. As Lenin once said: to the mouse there is no animal bigger than the cat! They fling themselves at the feet of Blair and his puppeteer, Bush!
Like the SWP, but from the other side, they insist that the choice is between support for Blair and Bush or a popular front with the clerical fascists, Saddamists, and Sunnis supremacists. They go from the hope — which we share — for an outcome in Iraq which will allow the labour movement to survive and develop, to out-and-out political partisanship for Blair and Bush, even to the extent of backing Blair against his critics in the Labour Party.
They insist that for consistency those who are for the Iraqi labour movement against the Sunni-supremacist and Islamist “resistance” must give positive political support to Blair, Bush and their allies in Iraq, They amalgamate the work of building solidarity for the Iraqi working class with political endorsement of Blair and Bush. That is, in practice they try to confine solidarity work to the supporters of Blair in the British labour movement.
Those, they assert, who do not “support” the Iraqi CP-led IFTU politically do not support the Iraqi labour movement at all. When we say we do, it is dishonest “pretence”.
It is not enough to support the CP-led Iraqi trade unions (Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions) against their reactionary opponents in Iraq. Not enough to have an attitude to the IFTU like that we had to the Solidarnosc labour movement in Poland in the 1980s: unconditional support for its right to exist, and support against the Polish state, despite its politics, which, in recoil from the Stalinist bureaucracy, came to be entirely bourgeois. In Iraq “support” means political support — or it isn’t support!
They rule out and stigmatise political criticism of the IFTU on the ridiculous assertion that any such criticism is a mortal assault on the IFTU’s very existence. They claim that there is no difference in practice between political criticism, and the attitude of the reactionary anti-imperialists who condemn the IFTU for refusing to commit hara-kiri on the altar of the “anti-imperialist” clerical fascist “resistance” — the attitude that led to the shouting down of the IFTU representative at the European Social Forum in October 2004.
In short, they make of our common defence of the Iraqi labour movement and opposition to the reactionary “anti-imperialist” demagogues of the kitsch left the occasion for going over to the bourgeois camp!
In fact, it is not our “inconsistency”, but our consistency and our continuity with the revolutionary Marxist tradition of the Bolsheviks, the early Communist International, and Trotsky’s Fourth International, that makes us reject these conclusions!
You cannot be a revolutionary socialist in the Marxist tradition and support the class-collaborationist political line of the IFTU, that is, of the Communist Party of Iraq, which took part in Bremer’s Interim Governing Council, supported Allawi’s Interim Government, and sought a broad coalition with the Shia alliance for the 30 January 2005 elections! Nor does solidarity with the IFTU imply or require that you take your political line from them.
Marxists do not — like someone picking a football team or a dog at the races — look for what they think is the best political organisation in a given situation and then adopt and mimic their politics. If we agree with them on political issues, we arrive at agreement not by mimicry, but by the assessments we ourselves make, from our own Marxist political standpoint. It is perfectly possible to combine political criticism of the IFTU and the CPI with wholehearted and unstinting support for the Iraqi labour movement against reaction.
The young people who took part in the anti-war marches are right in their instinctive hostility to the powers that rule in Britain and America, and in their reflex siding with the “underdog”. They are miseducated and politically exploited by the pseudo-socialists and reactionary “anti-imperialist” demagogues, but their animosity towards those who rule the world is, in principle, entirely right.
Those who tell them that their only choice is to back either Blair and Bush or the reactionaries of the “resistance” in Iraq are doing not only the work of the Blairites, but, inadvertently, also the work of the reactionary anti-imperialists.
There is another choice. Our choice: work to build the “Third Camp” of independent working class politics.
Their case for backing Blair
The basic case of the ex-Marxist Blairites is this. Bush and Blair want to create an American-style bourgeois-democratic, pluto-democratic society in Iraq. The USA is “bringing democracy to Iraq”, or at least it may well do so. No other force is strong enough to do that. The Islamist and Ba’thist militias fighting the USA are reactionary. Therefore we should support the USA.
Do the US “intend” to “create a democratic society in Iraq”? I think they do. However, in the first place, with their methods, it is quite likely that they will not.
In the second place, we must keep in mind that their “bourgeois democracy” includes not only political liberties and some space for a labour movement to develop, but mass privatisation, free-marketeering, and union-busting if the unions get strong. Even if the US do finally engineer a “bourgeois-democratic” US-friendly regime, it may be a large distance from anything we, the Iraqi labour movement, or even the “best intentions” of the Americans would want.
Why did the Americans not “go on to Baghdad” in the first Gulf war of 1991, and destroy the Saddam regime? Because they feared chaos and the break-up of Iraq, which is an artificial conglomerate state. They hoped that, after defeat, a military coup would soon remove Saddam Hussein while preserving the state. They feared a power vacuum. The USSR still existed, on the edge of collapse, but no-one could be sure what would happen.
This time they had no such constraints. The US is the sole hyperpower. Its rulers are drunk with arrogance gained from their victory in the Cold War and their easy military victories in 1991, 1999, and 2001. They threw caution to the winds, and disbanded even the Iraqi army and police.
Chaos followed. They are now laboriously trying to reconstruct an Iraqi state. It is impossible to say now what compromises with sectarian forces they will make in this. We know already that, for now, they rely on forces like the Shia Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Dawa party, the Sunni Iraq Islamic Party (the Muslim Brotherhood), and the warlordist Kurdish parties.
Who in their political senses can feel sure that they will not impose, collude in or accept constrictions on democracy, including on the rights most essential to the growth of a mass legal labour movement?
Or that they will not promote, or allow to develop, a situation like, to take an extreme example, Colombia, where death squads wage a relentless war of murder against trade union organisers?
Who can think that even bourgeois democracy can be secured in Iraq without the independent struggle of the working class?
Or fail to see that even limited good results may not emerge at all? It may turn out that what, by smashing Saddam Hussein’s regime, seemed to make a bourgeois-democratic transformation possible, was simultaneously — because of the brutality, rapacity, great-power arrogance, and incompetence of the US post-war administration of Iraq — what ultimately made it impossible. If Iraq collapses into full-scale reaction, then an enormous part of the responsibility for that will lie with the Bush regime and its methods — and with those who back them. Even if Blair and Bush are carrying through, from above and from outside, their own “bourgeois-democratic revolution” in Iraq, it will be something very different from a bourgeois-democratic revolution originating from “below” and from inside Iraqi society.
Even the best possible results of a US-imposed “bourgeois-democratic revolution” will be marked by their origins, may be only shallowly rooted, and will certainly be shot through with elements embodying the interests and pressures of the US hyperpower and of local reactionaries who for their own reasons support the USA.
Yet the ex-Marxists who support Blair and Bush insist that we must — following after the IFTU — politically endorse and support the Americans and the British in Iraq.
They take the hope that — as in Germany and Japan after 1945 — out of the US-British victory against Saddam Hussein will come some sort of bourgeois-democratic system in which a labour movement can develop, and transmute it into identification with and support for Bush and Blair. They give positive support to, and thereby take political responsibility for, the USA, Britain, and their allies and stooges, and even, it seems, responsibility for their military and economic policies. (See The ghost of Peter Struve in Solidarity 3/63).
Why not “critically support” the Americans and British in Iraq? Marxists “critically support” working-class organisations, national liberation movements, and so on.
It makes no sense in relation to the USA. Working-class socialists cannot possibly “intervene” in the US government or in its military machine to push its bourgeois-democratic intentions further and vie for leadership. In any “critical support”, the “criticism” will be without grip and the political self-disarming “support” will be everything, all-defining.
The pro-Blair “leftists” have abandoned — certainly in this case, and logically (why not?) in all future cases — commitment to building what Trotsky called the Third Camp and others the Third Front. They have gone over to the “camp” of the dominant bourgeois-imperialist forces
The Marxist left continues to stand for the Third Camp, which Trotsky described in the words at the head of this article — that is, for independent working-class politics.
What should revolutionary socialists do in Iraq?
What should the revolutionary socialists do in Iraq? They should propagandise for and build workshop organisations, trade unions, and so on. They should preach socialism.
They should adopt a political programme whose immediate demands are for a secular democratic republic, civil rights, the separation of religion and state, an independent sovereign Iraq, self-determination for the Kurds, rights for minorities like the Assyrians.
They will naturally oppose all the clerical-fascists (those collaborating with the USA as well as those in conflict with it); the Ba’th quasi-fascists; the occupying troops; and every force antagonistic to what they want to see develop.
They will not of course ignore concrete realities and just mouth propagandist abstractions. While maintaining its intransigent class opposition to the US occupying forces, it would be right for such a Third Camp force not to call for immediate US-British withdrawal. It is right for the IFTU not to do so now. It would be suicidal foolishness for them if they did.
Just as Marxists can oppose a bourgeois government without agitating for its immediate overthrow, so also we can oppose the occupation forces without saying “troops out now”. We raise demands and slogans not to give advice to governments, but to orient the working class. Nothing in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, or Trotsky teaches us that the slogan “troops out now” is a matter of principle. A great deal in their writings, as we shall see, teaches us that working-class political independence is a matter of principle.
In Iraq, the Marxist revolutionaries should pose as their goal the taking of state power — to make a socialist revolution. In terms of Iraqi society and the place of the working class in it, I know of no revolutionary socialist or Marxist argument against that. The Iraqi working class has been massively augmented in the last several decades. There was once a powerful working-class tradition, deformed by Stalinism it is true, among Iraqi workers.
Must the labour movement first go through a stage of bourgeois “real political time” before it can fight for socialism? Must things go through a rigidly pre-determined series of stages, beginning with the bourgeois-US/UK regime to which the ex-Marxist Bushniks and Blairites want to subordinate everything? It depends.
It depends largely on the strength, the activity, and the political line of the Marxists. Tremendous things would be possible in a short time given a revolutionary Marxist organisation in the Lenin-Trotsky tradition.
What makes the goal of a working-class socialist revolution unrealistic as a short-term prospect? The weakness, as yet, of working-class politics in Iraq. Most of the working class is not emancipated from religion. Few workers have any experience of organising as a class even on the trade union level. The working class needs to be socially and politically enlightened by experience in action and by agitation, propaganda, and Marxist education.
For that it needs democratic freedom and time. But it also needs Marxists who have not abandoned the goal of socialist working-class power and who are not too confused or too afraid to advocate — in the spirit of Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks in 1917 — the perspective of working-class power.
What timescale are we talking about? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know. In conditions of social breakdown, in the aftermath of the prolonged fascistic dictatorship, tremendous bounds forward in social and political understanding might be possible in a short time, as in 1917 in Russia.
There are political prerequisites — in the first place, a strong Iraq-wide Marxist, that is, Bolshevik, political movement. If such a movement existed, the domination which the clericalists have over the poorest people, in part because of their social welfare networks, would not have become over the last two years what it is now. Even a bourgeois-democratic Iraqi republic could prove to be a “Kerensky regime”, an unstable interval, a transitional form never completed or consolidated, between the old dictatorship and working-class power.
The ex-Stalinist organisation which controls the IFTU is reformist rather than revolutionary. There are better, revolutionary, currents in the Iraqi working class, such as the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, but, even aside from issues of policy, they are at present weak.
What the CPI and IFTU say and do is determined not only by the situation in Iraq and the relation of forces there, but also by their politics. Their policy is an active, shaping factor in the Iraqi situation. It helps determine and delineate its possibilities — the situation that we, from far away, have to accept as “given”. If they had a different approach, the Bolshevik approach which I outlined in the first part of this article, there would be other possibilities in Iraq.
The line which the ex-Stalinist reformists take — their decision to back Allawi — is no necessary part of being for bourgeois democracy as against its enemies in Iraq.
We defend them against the clerical fascists and their “anti-imperialist” British allies. We do not endorse them politically. We condemn their “Menshevik” politics, without letting that interfere with our duty to support them against the clerical fascists and their British cheerleaders.
Even if we were to aspire to nothing more than bourgeois democracy in Iraq we would criticise and condemn them. Why? Meek self-subordination by the Iraqi labour movement to the Iraqi interim government, and to the USA — that is not the way to “strengthen” bourgeois democratic prospects in Iraq! Were the Iraqi labour movement led by Marxists, it would stand in political opposition to the bourgeoisie and the US/British authorities, and fight against them for a much fuller and more consistent democracy that the US/UK would ever grant without such a fight.
The approach of the CPI and of the IFTU is likely to weaken the prospects even for democracy in Iraq, not least because it leaves disaffected Iraqi workers to the clerical fascist demagogues.
Socialists and the “political process” in Iraq
One ex-Marxist Blairite accused AWL of “counterpos[ing] the need for independent working-class organisations to the UN process, as if recognising the validity of the political process necessarily denied such independence”.
The “left” Blairites take their stand on “the UN-backed political transition process”. Bush is getting the UN on board, and the new-born Blairites are satisfied!
The UN-backed process! For most anti-war Labour MPs, if the US and Britain had managed to bribe, bully, and blackmail enough UN member states to win UN licence for the 2003 invasion, then everything would have been fine. The ex-Marxists are even less demanding than the anti-war Labour MPs. They settle for a retrospective UN “legality” and “valid UN political process”. This is pitiable “ideologising”, political cloak-work on behalf of Bush and Blair. The invasion of Iraq took place in defiance of UN legality, for what that is worth. In general, appeals to the UN are in world politics what belief in divine intervention is in the affairs of humanity and nature. The UN is the last resort of the dim political bankrupt!
The ex-Marxists’ newly-discovered political axis is this: that the task of “Iraqi democrats” (they sink the Iraqi labour movement into the general category of “democrats”) is “to bring democratic pro-worker politics into the UN-backed political process and timetable”.
What ‘“democrat” — what nameless, classless democrat — would be against that? The question is how it is to be done, and what “recognising the validity of the political process” means.
Of course the working-class organisations should use whatever opportunities for political activity are created by way of the “political process” — whether “valid” or otherwise. If using those opportunities is “recognising the validity of the political process” then so be it. It is of small account. We have agreement, then? No, we don’t! The ex-Marxists mean something else entirely.
By “recognise” they mean accept, acquiesce, subordinate, and limit the working class to “the UN backed process”. They mean the policy of the CPI.
They mean docile and “constructive” collaboration with the US and British-vetted bourgeois democratic and sectarian Iraqi ruling class forces. To win its place in that “process” the labour movement must accept in advance that this is the “non-socialist stage”. For now it must support those in charge of that “stage”, because they are the only “real forces” who can push it through. It must embed itself in the bloc of the US-British-vetted, “democratic” bourgeoisie, clericalists, etc, and subordinate itself in advance to acceptance of “the process”, whose outcome is as yet unknown. It must take responsibility for the “process” and those who control it. It should endorse and approve, in advance, what “the process” between the USA and the various bourgeois and sectarian political forces in Iraq will produce.
They mean that the Iraqi labour movement should aim no higher than to be a loyal and subordinate part of a broad “democratic” coalition and in that to have an “input” into constitution-making.
This is a policy of political collapse into the camp of the bourgeoisie! And it is recognisably “Menshevik”. Like the Mensheviks in 1917, the new Blairites are the victim of their own “idiotarian” schematism, which subordinates struggle for working class political and organisational independence and socialism, and, immediately, for the best democratic system that can be won, to a priori “recognition” of a necessary stage in which the bloc of those who support “the UN-backed process” are recognised as the “legitimate” and necessary protagonist at this stage of history.
In our assessments and calculations, we have to take account of the objective realities of Iraq, including the politics of the Iraqi CP. But we think real Iraqi socialists should not subordinate themselves or the perspective for which they fight to the “UN-backed process”. They should use every crisis, difficulty, or delay, to agitate with, organise and educate the Iraqi working class and promote such things as workers’ control in the factories.
The first job of socialists is to maximise the independent political weight and strength of the working class, and develop its consciousness and its organisations. This means building politically independent working class organisations. It means fighting for the maximum advance possible in the circumstances.
Whether the working class movement is a docile part or supporter of the government, or is a militant, politically independent force, can have a decisive influence on the shape of the bourgeois democratic “revolution” which may be forced through by the US. What is objectively possible can be measured only by the working class pushing at its boundaries. Only in that way can Marxists educate the Iraqi working class and prepare workers to make a socialist revolution. Lenin’s writings in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions are an invaluable guide here.
The politics of the Iraqi working class organisations help to limit what is practically possible in Iraq now. And the politics of the ex-Marxist Blairites? They are a toy-town version of the politics of the right wing Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution!
Most likely in the short term things will not develop in the Bolshevik direction or on the 1917 pattern. A bourgeois-democratic system is calculably the best immediate possibility. We want bourgeois democracy only because the Iraqi working class and its organisations are clearly not yet in a condition of either consciousness or organisation to struggle for their own political power.
The Iraqi labour movement will have to struggle for even bourgeois democracy against the US and the UK and their Iraqi allies, as well as against the militantly anti-US clerical-fascists. That struggle should be conducted in such a Bolshevik way that it educates the Iraqi working class in the nature and limitations of bourgeois democracy, and on the urgent need to go beyond it to working class democracy and working class power.
Support for lesser evils?
The ex-Marxists respond by insisting that those who reject their supine politics are indifferent as to whether a bourgeois-democratic government or clerical fascists rule the new Iraq.
Think of those poor, benighted political “idiots”, the Bolsheviks, who in 1917 would not listen to the Mensheviks and SRs, or their own Bolshevik right wing, arguing that they needed to rally politically to the Provisional Government in order to prevent the victory of reaction!
The Interim Government and its successor are a lesser evil than the reactionary “resistance”. That is not what our dispute with the born-again Blairites is about.
Isn’t it absurd pedantry, say the ex-Marxists, or bloody-minded obfuscating, stubborn stupidity, to be in favour of what the US and Britain say they want in Iraq — a bourgeois-democratic system — and yet refuse to support them? Or to say, that is, pretend, that we don’t support them, when in fact we do?
We don’t want the Iraqi labour movement to confine itself to picking and choosing lesser evils among the anti-working-class “powers”. We want it to hammer out its own politics, independent of all factions of the Iraqi bourgeoisie and of the US and British bourgeoisies. That is what the aspiration to create a “third camp”, outlined in the words of Trotsky at the top of this article, comes down to in Iraqi politics now.
It follows from the ABC of Marxism. Any other attitude would be in flat contradiction to consistent working-class socialist politics. The ruling classes are our enemy — everywhere. If we find ourselves having parallel interests with bourgeois-democratic elements of a ruling class against, say, fascism, secular or clerical, then, even while fighting side by side with them, we maintain our fundamental class position and our political independence.
When the Bolsheviks fought against Kornilov’s attempted coup in Russia in September 1917, Lenin wrote:
“Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.
“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference”. (To the Central Committee of the RSDLP, 12 September 1917).
It is easy for a new-fledged realpolitiker philistine to dismiss this as just Lenin playing with words. After all, the Bolsheviks fought Kornilov, and thereby in fact “supported” the Kerensky government against those who tried to overthrow it.
Lenin was concerned that there should be no blurring of distinctions, no hint or talk of “supporting” Kerensky in any positive or political sense, no suggestion of the Bolsheviks “softening” their hostility to the government besides whose forces they were fighting to defeat a common enemy that threatened both the Kerensky government and the labour movement.
If the Bolsheviks “supported” the Kerensky government in the sense of fighting on the same side against Kornilov, they did not — and that is what concerned Lenin — subordinate to it. They did not endorse it. They remained mortally hostile to it. The Bolshevik refusal to “support” Kerensky was a pledge for the future, which they redeemed when they chased Kerensky out of St Petersburg on 7 November 1917.
Suppose we led or influenced working-class anti-fascist partisan forces in France or Italy at the end of the Second World War, and found ourselves on the same side as the invading armies of US and British imperialism. What would the ex-Marxists suggest our approach should be? If we “worked along with” the invading armies against a common enemy, it would be only to an extent limited by the exigencies of maintaining our political and military independence. It would be informed by the certainty that we would come into conflict with those armies and with their French and Italian supporters, allies, and stooges.
It speaks volumes about their politics now that the new-hatched Blairites feel obliged to denounce this idea.
Not a penny for this system!
Amost instructive misunderstanding occurred when one of the New Blairites took issue with an editorial preface to some texts from Lenin and Luxemburg in Solidarity (3/52, 27 May 2004). The preface said:
“Solidarity thinks it good that the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq has been smashed. Does that mean that we should have supported Bush or Blair’s war? Does the political judgement that the smashing of Saddam’s regime was a good thing necessarily imply support for those who smashed it? Again, we say, no. These sorts of issues and dilemmas have always existed for Marxist socialists. The Marxists in the German Reichstag [parliament] before the First World War operated under the general policy summed up by the slogan ‘Not a man, not a penny, for this system’.”
That, says a simple-minded ex-Marxist, was a “revolutionary defeatist position”. In fact, it was not.
The standard Marxist illustration of all this is Trotsky’s discussion with Max Shachtman in 1937 about the Spanish Civil War. Trotsky reprised this discussion in January 1940 (From a Scratch to a Danger of Gangrene):
“On September 18, 1937, Shachtman wrote me:
“You say, ‘If we would have a member in the Cortes [parliament] he would vote against the military budget of Negrin [the Republican prime minister].’ Unless this is a typographical error it seems to us to be a non-sequitur. If, as we all contend, the element of an imperialist war is not dominant at the present time in the Spanish struggle, and if instead the decisive element is still the struggle between the decaying bourgeois democracy, with all that it involves, on the one side, and fascism on the other, and further if we are obliged to give military assistance to the struggle against fascism, we don’t see how it would be possible to vote in the Cortes against the military budget... If a Bolshevik-Leninist on the Huesca front were asked by a Socialist comrade why his representative in the Cortes voted against the proposal by Negrin to devote a million pesetas to the purchase of rifles for the front, what would this Bolshevik-Leninist reply? It doesn’t seem to us that he would have an effective answer’.
“This letter astounded me. Shachtman was willing to express confidence in the perfidious Negrin government on the purely negative basis that the ‘element of an imperialist war’ was not dominant in Spain.
“On September 20, 1937, I replied to Shachtman:
‘To vote the military budget of the Negrin government signifies to vote him political confidence... To do it would be a crime. How we explain our vote to the anarchist workers? Very simply: We have not the slightest confidence in the capacity of this government to conduct the war and assure victory. We accuse this government of protecting the rich and starving the poor. This government must be smashed. So long as we are not strong enough to replace it, we are fighting under its command. But on every occasion we express openly our non-confidence in it: it is the only one possibility to mobilise the masses politically against this government and to prepare its overthrow. Any other politics would be a betrayal of the revolution’.’”
In the Spanish Civil War we were revolutionary defencists on the Republican side. 100% and 150% defencists. Trotsky’s text sums up our position in all situations in which we want victory for one side, but pursue the politics of moral class and political enmity towards those in power on that side.
A Trotskyist deputy in the Cortes would indeed have wanted the Republican militias to have guns and the best possible military equipment. (More than once I have encountered otherwise intelligent people who think that Trotsky’s point was that we didn’t want the Stalinists to have guns. But it wasn’t). The voting in the Cortes was part of a political, not a military, process. In voting against the budget we would express not opposition to arming the anti-fascist fighters at the front, but our opposition to those in political control.
To a simple-witted political yokel, and even initially to Max Shachtman, who was neither simple-minded nor an ignoramus, such a thing seems hopelessly self-contradictory. It is only so if such incidents as voting are detached from the connecting chain of which they are part — and detached from socialist perspectives — and treated in isolation. If Trotskyist votes in the Cortes against the military budget would in practice lead to no money for weapons, then we would be in a situation not of voting to express no confidence in the government, but of challenging it for power.
But we will never get to that situation of challenging for power if we are not prepared to start by using our votes and voices to express intransigent hostility to the rulers.
The Labour Party conference — where in 2004 some of the ex-Marxists backed Blair against his critics —is not a bourgeois parliament, like the Cortes, but essentially the same issue is involved there. Trotsky wrote that he was “astounded” that “Shachtman was willing to express confidence in the perfidious Negrin government on the purely negative basis that the ‘element of an imperialist war’ was not dominant in Spain”. I find the idea astounding that at the Labour Party conference — the “parliament” of the political labour movement, or what is left of it — people calling themselves socialists should line up to help win a vote for Blair and his neo-Tory New Labour government, on the purely negative basis of opposition to the kitsch left.
We do not want the clerical fascists to win in Iraq, and right now if the US and (very much secondarily) the British troops are withdrawn, they probably will win, or in any case Iraq will be torn apart in a civil war in which the labour movement will most likely be destroyed, It does not follow at all that we must do our bit to help Blair defeat his critics in the labour movement, or become political sheepdogs for Blair at the Labour Party conference.
The issue here between revolutionary socialists and the ex-Marxist Blairites is not disposed of by badmouthing the “reactionary anti-imperialists” who back even the clerical fascists against Britain and America. We are politically independent militants. The whole of politics is not defined for us by Iraq, or, negatively, by the SWP.
Trotsky expressed our approach here in an article of 1939:
“The policy that attempts to place upon the proletariat the insoluble task of warding off all dangers engendered by the bourgeoisie and its policy of war is vain, false, mortally dangerous. ‘But fascism might be victorious!’ ‘But the USSR is menaced!’ ‘But Hitler’s invasion would signify the slaughter of workers!’ And so on, without end.
“Of course, the dangers are many, very many. It is impossible not only to ward them all off, but even to foresee all of them. Should the proletariat attempt at the expense of the clarity and irreconcilability of its fundamental policy to chase after each episodic danger separately, it will unfailingly prove itself bankrupt... The workers will be able to profit to the full from this monstrous chaos only if they occupy themselves not by acting as supervisors of the historical process but by engaging in the class struggle...” (A Step Towards Social Patriotism, 7 March 1939).
In real politics, it is sometimes necessary to hold two, or maybe three or four, conflicting aspects of something in your mind at the same time in order to get an accurate picture of reality. A clear opinion in politics often involves sidelining or subordinating certain aspects of the reality, making a decision that they are secondary.
If doing that leads, as it does with the “left” born-again Blairites, to outright denial of reality, then you can take that as evidence that the job has not been done well, or with sufficient lucidity and rationality.
Take an example from the history of the suppression of black slavery. Even though the activities of the British navy to stop the slave trade (after 1808) were an aspect of Britain’s drive for and exercise of dominion over the world’s seas (this was in the middle of the wars against Napoleonic France), it was none the less right, good, progressive that the slave trade should be stopped.
Someone who was hostile to British domination of the seas — rightly so, from our point of view — and therefore denounced British ships stopping the slave ships of other, sovereign, nations on the high seas and freeing the slaves, would have been a malignant fuck-wit.
But someone supporting the British drive to suppress the slave trade would have been a different sort of a fool to ignore the facts that slavery continued in the British colonies until 1834. That the British ruling class exploited large parts of the world — India, Ireland the West Indies, etc. That suppression of the slave trade meant the growth of “slave-breeding farms” in the USA. That the great British cotton industry depended for its raw material on the labour of American black slaves who were being worked to death, on average, in seven or eight years.
Or to feel that it would be a betrayal to fight against the slave trade to mention such things…
Progressive Imperial Democrats?
“Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution, therefore the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the worthless politicians... Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution, say we Marxists, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deceptive practices of the bourgeois politicians, must teach the people not to believe in words, but to depend wholly on their own strength, on organisation, on their own unity, and on arms”. Lenin
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the USA, the sole hyper-power, no longer constricted by the exigencies of competition with Stalinist Russia, is now engaged in spreading its own pluto-democratic version of bourgeois democracy across the world. That Blair, Bush, and their allies stand for bourgeois-democratic political revolution, imposed from outside and from above. That Iraq is the first of a series of US-originated bourgeois-democratic revolutions imposed from outside. What should be the attitude of socialists?
That the bourgeoisie and capitalism are a great revolutionary force in history, the ground-breaker for the working class movement and the harbinger of the working class socialist revolution, is of course, not foreign to Marxists, but basic to our entire world outlook back as far as the Communist Manifesto.
In many ways there was something “unnatural”, against the grain of the USA’s own bourgeois-democratic nature, in America buttressing internal reaction in so many countries during the Cold War with the USSR. Recognising this, American Independent Socialists in the 1950s and 60s advocated that, in its struggle against Stalinist totalitarianism for international influence, the USA should promote democratic regimes, and the independence of oppressed peoples, everywhere.
There is a sort of precedent. In its wars against the French bourgeois revolution, and then against the Empire which Napoleon Bonaparte erected on the social conquests of the revolution, bourgeois Britain allied with the deepest and dirtiest reactionaries in Europe, with kings and tsars, bishops and medieval-minded aristocrats. Britain itself was the most advanced bourgeois society in existence. The bourgeoisie ruled there. When the French war ended in 1815, the political settlement of post-revolutionary Europe was shaped by the so named Holy Alliance of Austria, Russia, Prussia, dominated by kings, emperors, priests and aristocrats. They entrenched reaction in power, everywhere, placing a giant tombstone over progressive Europe. It took decades, and many revolutions, for that reactionary work to be undone.
Britain had been the most important power in the wars against revolutionary France. Though it acquiesced in the post-war Holy Alliance system it did not join the Holy Alliance. The pressures and exigencies of war gone, Britain for a while in the 1820s pursued a far more progressive foreign policy. It supported the independence of Greece, submerged for centuries in the Turkish Empire, whose patriots, by way of revolutionary war, created the first Greek state in modern history in 1829. It supported the liberation of the peoples of South America from Spanish rule.
In a sense, the bourgeois social nature of Britain manifested itself in, as Marx put it, “England’s mission to promote constitutionalism” (as against despotism) internationally. Its great power nature soon reasserted itself and led to decades of supporting the repressive Turkish Empire, in order to prevent Russia aggrandising itself at the expense of the Turkish “sick man of Europe’.
That the pluto-democratic USA, free of the long struggle against Russia, might now adopt a “mission to promote constitutionalism”, is by no means impossible. The USA announced similar plans both after World War One, under Wilson, and after World War Two, under Roosevelt. Both quickly ran aground, but they were serious plans.
How likely it is that any such plan now will be generalised and sustained is another question. But, for now, grant the “New Blairites” their strongest case. Assume that the hyper-power is acting as a world imperialist revolutionary-bourgeois force, from outside and from above.
What then would follow for socialists? What would our duty be? As people who want a working-class socialist revolution, but would see the establishment of bourgeois-democratic rights in Iraq, and elsewhere, as a great step forward for the working class — what attitude should we take?
Loyally support Bush and Blair and their allies in Iraq now? Support the American neo-conservatives and the “honorary” neo-conservative Blair? Follow the bourgeoisie and urge the working class to do the same, until the “proper” revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie in history has been entirely exhausted?
Would socialists do what the newly evangelised ex-Marxist Blairites do — support “imperialist-revolutionary” wars, as the corollary of supporting the US and Britain in Iraq now? If not, why not?
Politically, such an attitude of lining up behind the bourgeoisie was never the right policy, not even in the great bourgeois revolution in France 200 years ago! It is not the right policy now.
In our hypothetical international bourgeois-democratic revolution the character and “limitations” of the world protagonist — the ruling class pluto-democrats of the hyperpower — are blatantly clear and very well-known, written across the history of the 20th century in world politics and in the US’s own political system of “democracy for the rich” at home. Any openings the USA’s hypothetical “imperial-democratic revolution” could bring for the working class could only be maximised and utilised by working-class movements which maintained a sharp hostility to the US plutocrats.
A century and a half ago, the US ruling class was very different then from its descendant now. It carried through a progressive bourgeois-democratic revolution by way of civil war and conquest of the Southern slave-holding states of the USA itself. Even then, the plundering of even the most radical of the bourgeois-democrats of the north in the defeated ex-slave states and the political system they set up there, are well known. It took a hundred years and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s for the descendants of the ex-slaves to even begin to come into their own in the territories in which the Northern bourgeoisie had made a bourgeois-democratic revolution, of sorts.
Did the bourgeoisie win “bourgeois democracy”?
The great “bourgeois” French revolution was not made by the bourgeoisie but by the lower petit-bourgeoisie and the so-called sans culottes, the lowest class of all, bar the lumpen proletariat, in the towns and the nearest equivalent of the modern proletariat.
In the 1848 revolution in central Europe — in the first place, in Germany — the bourgeoisie proved unable to carry through “its own” revolution, in part for fear of the proletariat. Afterwards, over decades, parts of the bourgeoisie’s social programme were introduced under Bismarck by those who had defeated the bourgeoisie.
Bismarck’s reforms were necessarily alloyed with regressive and reactionary Junker (landlord) elements, whose interests Bismarck also served. They amounted to something recognisably like the bourgeois-democratic revolution aspired to by the revolutionary democrats in the defeated revolution of 1848 — but also, and especially from the point of view of the working class, something radically different.
Within the bourgeois democratic framework, what we think of as “democratic”, or as “mature” bourgeois democracy had to be won, defended, and yet again won back and defended again against the bourgeoisie by the working class and its allies. The USA of Woodrow Wilson was also the USA of Palmer Raids, where the early USA was forced underground.
At any turning point in the long history, anyone who stuck to what the bourgeoisie wanted would have been a vehement enemy of most of the things we prize in “bourgeois democracy”.
Way, way back those who sided with “the people” had to fight the idea that “real” historical and social progress, even in the era of bourgeois revolutions, was the possession of the bourgeoisie and therefore that intelligent well-wishers of their kind should side with and aid the bourgeoisie. Those who meekly backed the bourgeoisie were thereby rendered incapable of being even “bourgeois” democrats!
The Russian experience
In Russia, when all Marxists, as distinct from the populist agrarian-socialists, believed that the only possible revolution was a bourgeois-democratic revolution that at best would lead to a bourgeois-democratic republic, they debated the question of how they should relate to the bourgeois democrats, the liberal bourgeoisie, the right-populists, etc. The different answers to that question defined and shaped the political formations in Russian Marxism in the 20 years before 1917.
To simplify it a great deal, the Mensheviks said that since it was to be a bourgeois revolution, the bourgeoisie would have to lead it, and therefore the working class should avoid doing anything that would frighten the bourgeoisie. They accommodated to the bourgeois political formations, whose political goal came to be a constitutional monarchy. They educated the workers they influenced in such a spirit.
The Bolsheviks took a radically different approach, even though until 1917 they too believed that only a revolution that would end in bourgeois power was possible.
The most important liberals in pre-1917 Russia took the Bismarckian model of “reform from above” as their own desired “bourgeois revolution” for fear of both the workers and the peasantry.
The Bolsheviks taught the workers they educated to aim for a radical “Jacobin” revolution in the style of the French revolution of 1789-93, led by peasants and workers, that would level all the institutions of the old regime and clear away all the debris of the past. In making such a revolution, in alliance with the peasants, the working class would educate itself in the best way possible and to the highest possible degree to fight the bourgeoisie in power for its own working-class interests.
They thought it certain that the end result, for a considerable time ahead, of the anti-Tsarist revolution would be a bourgeois-democratic regime, under the bourgeoisie. But they advocated independent and revolutionary tactics so that the working class would best be educated, and the historical epoch of bourgeois rule possibly foreshortened, especially in the event that the radical bourgeois revolution in Russia helped trigger working-class revolutions in European countries which were “ripe” for socialism.
It did not work out like that. The Tsar defeated the revolution of 1905, and when the Tsar was overthrown in 1917 the Bolsheviks steered towards a working-class seizure of power, believing that the First World War would trigger working-class revolutions in the west, to which worker-ruled Russia would then become an economically underdeveloped appendage.
The Bolsheviks adopted the politics expressed in the old slogan coined in mid 19th century Europe to define the tactics of working-class organisations fighting side-by-side with bourgeois revolutionaries against royal and feudal reaction: “march separately, strike together”.
The Communist International incorporated those ideas in its basic political platform at the Second Congress in 1920. The Comintern asserted that with such an approach, no period of stable bourgeois rule was now rigidly predetermined for backward countries.
In its early political manifestations, Stalinism broke with that approach. Among the consequences of that was the very bloody defeat of the Chinese working class in 1927 (which has a great deal to say both to the ‘“reactionary anti-imperialists” — and to the democratic pro-imperialists!)
No imperialism? Nothing but imperialism?
The “reactionary anti-imperialist” left pretends that because of the vast disparity of power between Iraq and the US/UK, and because Iraq was controlled by Britain directly until 1932 and indirectly until 1958, Iraq cannot be defined as “imperialist” or “regional-imperialist”. (The same approach to the Second World War would lead them to deny that Japan, which was weak and backward compared to the USA, was an imperialist power!) Out of Sunni-supremacist “resistance” to losing power to the Shia and the Kurdish majority, they conjure up an imaginary “anti-imperialist resistance”.
Their mirror-images hope for good results from the occupation, and, therefore, they absurdly pretend that US-British seizure of Iraq cannot be defined as an imperialist occupation. Or that, for tact, it shouldn’t.
As it turned out, good came from the post-Second World War US occupation of Germany and Japan — after they had buried the dead, reconstructed the economies, and begun to rebuild the cities levelled in such atrocities as the fire-bombing of Tokyo and Dresden and the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Japan the USA carried through a thoroughgoing bourgeois-democratic revolution, allowed a labour movement to develop (and later in the 1940s helped the Japanese bourgeoisie crush the militant wing of that labour movement).
And therefore? We have to conclude that the Second World War did not come from imperialist rivalries, and that the victors were not (bourgeois-democratic) imperialists?
That the result, bourgeois democracy in Japan and Germany, wipes out the fact of imperialist rivalries, and imperialist methods like the bombing of Dresden or Tokyo? Or that because we hope for a qualifiedly good outcome in Iraq, we must deny that it is an imperialist occupation? That we must refrain from being “nasty”, avoid saying true but unpleasant, debunking things? That we should not name and define for what they are the characteristic brutality of the US military, and the USA’s crude, bungling, rapacious imperialist methods in Iraq?
The political arrogance, the military brutality, the reckless use of power and fire-power, and the naked rapacity of the USA — their plan to sell of Iraqi state assets, and their insistence that reconstruction contracts go to foreign, mostly US, corporations — cut against the possibility of a democratic system developing. All that is summed up for us in the use of words like “bourgeois” and “imperialist” to describe them. It is not just a matter of abstract labels and name-tags: things like that are what the names break down to, “on the ground” and in practice.
In denying the imperialist nature of the occupation — that is, in refusing to recognise realities which disturb their political preconceptions — the ex-Marxists have the typical psychology and method of the old Stalinists, only inverted here to serve the ruling bourgeoisie!
Capitulators of today and yesterday
An example from the history of the USSR will also shed some Marxist light on the question of the attitude Marxists take when alien, anti-working class forces, are, or seem to be, doing work we want done, and would like to be strong enough to do ourselves, in our way.
In the mid 1920s, Trotsky and the Left Opposition, then the United Opposition (with Zinoviev), advocated a programme of industrialisation for the USSR. Their opponents, the Stalinists and the Bukharinites, scoffed at such an idea.
Then in 1928-9, faced with an upsurge of resistance by rich peasants (the “kulaks”), the Stalinists, who controlled the state, broke with the “right wing” Bukharinites, wiped out the kulaks, and forcibly drove the peasants into collective farms, wreaking vast destruction in rural Russia. Simultaneously, they launched a powerful drive to industrialise the USSR.
Their state waged a savage one-sided civil war on most of the people over whom they ruled. They turned Russian society upside down. In the Ukraine they created an artificial famine and used it to break the resistance of the peasants, three million or more of whom died.
The Trotskyists had been finally defeated in December 1927, and many hundreds of them, including most of those who had led the Bolshevik revolution, exiled to Siberia and similar wilderness places. From there they saw the Stalinists beginning to industrialise the USSR, at a furious pace and with murderous recklessness.
Some of the exiles began to ask themselves, and each other: isn’t this our programme which Stalin is carrying through? A cruel, crude, wasteful caricature of it, indeed. But the Stalinists are what they are, and, even so, it is a version of our programme that they are implementing. Don’t we want to see done what they are trying to do? Putting our “factional” feelings aside in the interests of the revolution, don’t we want them to succeed?
And if they are defeated in their struggle with the peasants, will that not lead to bourgeois counter-revolution, to the final destruction of the October Revolution? Aren’t we, as serious people, obliged to do whatever we can to help them?
So many of the defeated Oppositionists began to think.
Some of them were demoralised and wanted only an excuse to give up the fight. Many of them were entirely sincere. They began to resent Trotsky, Rakovsky, and the other irreconcilables. In that mood, hundreds of them capitulated to Stalin in 1928 and 1929.
Abandoning their own politics, they served the Stalinists. Some, Pyatakov for example, took leading positions in the construction of the new industries. In the purges of the mid-30s, almost all of them would be shot or imprisoned.
Against these self-depoliticised ex-Bolshevik “social engineers” and would-be “administrators of the historical process”, what did Trotsky and his comrades say? Trotsky insisted that, quite apart from specific criticisms of what the Stalinists were doing — and he was highly critical — the fundamental thing for revolutionary socialists was not only what was being done, but who was doing it, and how.
Lenin, expressing the same idea in general, says somewhere that the most fundamental issue in the politics of class society is who? whom? Trotsky now posed the same basic question to the capitulators: who? whom?
Trotsky too believed that, fundamentally, what the Stalinists were doing was historically progressive, despite all that had to be said against their methods. He believed that the pressure of the Opposition and its programme had played a big part in determining that the Stalinists, when their old pro-kulak policy broke down, turned on the rich farmers and on the Bukharinite right wing of their own party.
But Trotsky refused to blind himself to the difference between the programme of the working-class Left Opposition and what the bureaucracy was actually doing “on the ground”.
Both the Trotskyists and the rightists around Bukharin had wanted to retain the market framework which had been introduced in 1921, with the “New Economic Policy”. The Stalinists shattered it entirely and created a regime in which the totalitarian state used mass terror as the instrument for enforcing its own arbitrary and subjective economic and social decisions, recognising neither economic nor human nor any other restriction or restraint.
Where the Left Opposition had coupled proposals for industrialisation with proposals for raising working-class wages and improving working-class conditions, the Stalinists in their drive to industrialise cut wages, savagely worsened working-class conditions, destroyed the trade unions as workers’ defence organisations, and created pseudo-unions to regiment the workers on behalf of the state and its objectives. They turned the working class of the USSR into something closer to a class of slaves than to a free proletariat.
The result was needless chaos, waste, starvation, deprivation, famine, and the death of millions.
They did however industrialise the USSR. To this day you will find academics to argue that Stalin carried out the industrialisation programme of the Left Opposition — that the Left Opposition had first advocated the policies that Stalin eventually carried out. In fact Stalin’s was a different industrialisation, serving different objectives, and, for the working class and society as a whole, producing radically different results. Who? whom? proved to be the all-defining questions. Means shaped ends, the “who” determined the “what”.
Looking back with the hindsight of three quarters of a century, we can see what Trotsky did not so clearly see, that the difference between the programme of the Left Opposition and the seeming variant of it being carried out by the Stalinists was a class difference. Both the Left Opposition and Stalin were for “industrialisation”, but they represented different class programmes of industrialisation.
What Trotsky did see clearly in 1928-9 was that socialists who had undertaken to organise and lead the working-class struggle for emancipation had to distinguish between the industrialisation of the bureaucracy and the sort of industrialisation, serving the working class, that the Opposition had advocated. He saw that the Opposition had to maintain their own political programme. They had to criticise the bureaucracy and its methods mercilessly, and continue to counterpose their working-class programme to that of the bureaucracy.
They had to defend the working class, and help the working class to defend itself from the bureaucracy. Whatever it meant for the tempo of the bureaucracy’s version of industrialisation, the immediate material interests and well-being of the working class had to be championed and secured — just as, under capitalism, whether its work was considered progressive or not, the Marxists put the organisation, education, and self-assertion of the working class before everything else.
They did not identify with bureaucratic industrialisation. They did not politically support Stalin. In short, they refused to join their ex-comrades who chose to betray the interests and the cause of the working class and go over to the “progressive” bureaucracy.
The argument would be beside the point that Bush and Blair, representing free-market pluto-democracy, are not to be compared to the totalitarian Stalin. The analogy is between the Left Oppositionists who saw Stalin carrying through what looked like a variant of their industrialisation programme, and socialists now who see Bush’s and Blair’s attempt in Iraq to realise, in their own way and for their own reasons, a bourgeois-democratic regime that for us is both desirable and, when the working class is not yet ready to make a socialist revolution, necessary.
The analogy is between the politically demoralised and deracinated ex-Trotskyist capitulators who thought that the best contribution they could make to securing the interests of socialism was to go over to Stalin and commit political and moral suicide — and our former comrades who think that the best contribution they can make to progress in Iraq is to cease to be other than notional socialists, and, instead, to become cheerleaders for Blair and Bush and their Communist Party allies in Iraq.
The differences between our contemporaries who go over to Blair and the oppositionists who went over to Stalin are instructive too. Stalin was embattled when the capitulators rallied to him; Blair controls Britain, and Bush, the world-bestriding hyper-power.
The 1928-9 capitulators thought Stalin was defending and extending working class power; and that they really could make a difference in the fight, as they mistakenly saw it, between historical progress and historical reaction. Their view that they themselves could make a difference was not absurd.
The ex-Marxist Blairites think that, by backing Bush and Blair, by adopting the politics of their allies in Iraq, like the CPI, by helping Blair against his critics at Labour Party Conference, they can control or influence the outcome in Iraq. The idea is preposterous! To believe that is to believe in sympathetic magic. if the superstitious ex-Marxists don’t chant their uncritical support for Bush and Blair. If the shaman doesn’t dress up in green and say the right words at the right time, then Spring will never come again. If the tribe doesn’t make the right mimic noises and dance the right mimetic dance wearing the right costumes, at the right time, then the herds won’t pass this way again....
Mañana Third Campists
Acentral political difficulty in arguing with the born-again Blairites is that, though they have gone over to the camp of the bourgeoisie, they still try to deny it (perhaps even to themselves).
Though they reject all the relevant concerns, norms and “precedents” of the revolutionary socialist movement on war, peace and on how communists behave during a “bourgeois” revolution — everything on which our approach is erected — they pretend or half pretend, to argue still from within the Marxist tradition which some of them once had in common with AWL.
They introduce a small “correction” into what were our common politics. Third Camp politics are fine, but they will become “operational” only in the future. Not today, not in “real time”; some other time. They are still Third Campists — but mañana Third Campists!
For today they console themselves and others with the illusory perspective that everything is all right for democracy, the Iraqi labour movement and the fight against clerical fascism and other forms of reaction in Iraq — Blair and Bush are on the job! All socialists — especially Iraqi socialists — can do is back them, help to “hold up their hands”, until they succeed.
“Tomorrow”, promise the Blairites-For-The-Duration, they will again be Third Camp independent socialists. Tomorrow belongs to the “Third Camp”, working class political independence and socialism. But today — that belongs to Blair, Bush, and their allies in Iraq!
As Lenin wrote about Karl Kautsky:
“We have any number of promises to be a Marxist sometime in another epoch, not under present conditions, not at this moment. For tomorrow we have Marxism on credit, Marxism as a promise, Marxism deferred. For today we have a petty bourgeois opportunist theory — and not only a theory — of softening contradictions... In practice he who denies the sharp tasks of today in the name of dreams about soft tasks in the future becomes an opportunist. Theoretically it means to fail to base oneself on the developments now going on in real life, to detach oneself from them in the name of dreams...”
Or, in this case, to give up — “for now”, of course — the “dream” of building the “Third Camp” of an independent working class left and attach oneself to the powers that govern the affairs of the world.
Though labour movements exist in many countries, what does not exist is a strong international “Third Camp” in Trotsky’s sense: a politically independent labour movement, in which the working class acts as a “class for itself” in politics, counterposing itself to all the other camps and in the first place to the bourgeoisie of its own state.
From where we are to that, we have a long political way to go. Though great transformations may happen in a relatively short time — “twenty years in a day” — a strong organised “Third Camp” does not yet exist.
In this situation, our basic approach is the one Max Shachtman expounded when explaining his opposition to the Korean war.
“We have no intention or desire, no right and no need, to abandon the fight for socialism in this way or in any other. The Third Camp does exist. It is nothing but the camp of the workers and oppressed peoples everywhere who are sick to death of insecurity, exploitation, subjection and increasingly abominable wars, who aspire to freedom, peace and equality.
“We never promised that we would be able to organise them into an independent movement, packed, wrapped, sealed and delivered by a specified date. We did say that unless they are organised into a movement independent of capitalism and Stalinism, the decay and disintegration of the world would continue, as it has. We did say that the forces of the Third Camp of socialism and liberty, are here, and it is our sworn duty to help organise them into an independent movement.
“The only way we know how to do this is: tell the truth about capitalism and Stalinism; help make those we can reach conscious of the problem of society today and how to solve it, and increase the clarity of those who are already partly conscious of it...
“Our opposition to the war does not mean support of Stalinism, in Russia or elsewhere.
“Only ignorant or mendacious people say that. The best that can be said for such people is that they are so completely sceptical about the ability of the masses to attain socialist independence freedom and peace, that in their obtuseness they conclude that the only way American imperialism can be opposed is by helping Stalinist imperialism. We will try to teach the ignorant better; and we will answer the mendacious as they deserve to be answered.
“Our opposition to Stalinist imperialism is not one whit less uncompromising than our opposition to American imperialism. We do not need any instruction on how to fight the latter so that the former is not the gainer thereby. We do not oppose American imperialism so that it may be defeated by Stalinism...
“The Social-Democrats [reform “socialists”], to whom the Third Camp is a joke because they long ago ceased to regard socialism as a real fighting goal, have naturally proclaimed their adherence to the cause of American imperialism in Korea. The Fourth Internationalists to whom the Third Camp is an incomprehensible and uncomprehended blasphemy because they regard Stalinist totalitarianism as part of the working-class camp, have just as naturally proclaimed their adherence to the side of the Stalinists in Korea.
“The voice of socialist independence and internationalism is stilled in those movements or reduced to a whisper.
“In our movement, it will remain clear and firm. It will be heard, and it will be echoed”.
The working class and with it the “Third Camp” left is politically weak? The Bushes, Blairs and their like dominate the world? Indeed.
Therefore? Marxists who take their politics seriously believe that the precondition for changing such a situation to one more favourable to socialism is that the Marxists steadfastly advocate their politics, and work to build independent socialist organisations. That no other attitude is consistent with a real commitment to socialism has been the irreducible attitude of the Marxist movement all the way back to Marx and Engels.
If the Marxists lose heart, efface their own politics, latch on to a role in the alien bourgeois “political process” instead of playing their own proper role, that of obdurate propagandists and critics, then the consequence will be to perpetuate the working-class unripeness. The working class will never become “ripe”, never “Bolshevik” — that is, educated, organised, and committed to all-out class war until we win.
The politics of the New Blairites consists of the cheap and foolish urge to write themselves into the current big-bourgeois and imperialist political scenario. They play there the only role they conceivably can play, that of political lick-spittles and organisers of a claque to cheer on their “team”, sing its praises, wear its “colours”, jeer at its enemies, and shout encouragement in the sad and futile style of the fantasy footballer yelling frantic advice and encouragement from the terraces. But most vicarious footballers don’t suffer from the delusion that they can by their activities control or influence what the players do or the shape of the match!
The only practical consequence of such politics is that the socialists remove themselves as socialists from the longer-term political “process”.
The idea that Iraq is “the hinge of our times”, as someone expressed it, may be true or false, but, either way, the political conclusion for serious socialists is not that we amalgamate ourselves politically with Bush and Blair. Trotsky correctly wrote in the early thirties that Germany was the hinge of European and world politics. Most of subsequent 20th century history, maybe even the final consolidation of Stalinism in Russia, was shaped by Hitler’s triumph.
But what followed from Trotsky’s tragically correct perception? That Marxists should throw their weight behind the bourgeois-democrats, the liberals and the Social Democrats — the biggest working-class based party in Germany? That we owed them loyal, and even uncritical, support? That in the presidential election of 1932, when it was a choice between Hitler and the old mainstream right-winger Hindenburg, we should have followed the Social Democrats in backing Hindenburg?
Not for Trotsky! By driving the disaffected into the camps of the Nazis and Stalinists, the liberals and Social Democrats helped Hitler. And finally, when Hindenburg, just recently the “democratic” candidate against Hitler for president, called Hitler to be Chancellor, they “democratically” acquiesced in the “democratic” Reichstag.
Nobody not born yesterday can seriously think that the American “bourgeois democrats” will not install some clericalist or quasi-fascist regime, or — after they have rebuilt the Iraqi army — some military dictatorship, with or without “democratic” frills, if that is the “best” they can get that will serve their interests. Or that Blair, or his successor, would not “democratically” acquiesce. The more the situation deteriorates, the more likely something like that becomes.
The pixilated kibitzers and fantasy footballers on the right are the mirror image of the “reactionary anti-imperialists” on the kitsch left.
They are reminiscent of a bizarre section of the movement against the Vietnam War, in the 1960s. Led by a quasi-Maoist called Manchandra, their point of honour was that the British campaign should say exactly what the Vietnamese government said, want what it wanted, change when it changed, and religiously refrain from saying anything that even implicitly differed from it, or, god forbid, criticised it. For example: the Vietnamese government, properly from their point of view, wanted negotiations. So Manchandra said that to hold on to the idea that our job in the West was to insist that the USA just get out was a betrayal. It was “a lie” that we supported the Vietnamese.
Another precedent is what one group of ex-Trotskyists did in the solidarity campaign which some of us tried to build to support the newly-arisen Polish labour movement, Solidarnosc, in 1980-1. Inverted kitsch-Trotskyist sectarians, they treated the work of building solidarity as less important than their own pin-headed campaign against “Leninism”. They tried to make an anti-Bolshevik, retrospective, Polish nationalism a central part of the campaign for solidarity with the new Polish trade unions — that is to make solidarity work in support of Solidarnosc conditional on acceptance of their own invert-sect politics.
With the ex-Marxist Blairites, the same obsession with a new ideological toy, the same obsession with maximising the differences with the existing labour and socialist movement (in their case an obsession with inverting the SWP), in a way that is politically scandalous and destructive for the work of building solidarity.
Whatever policy the American and British or other bourgeois forces pursue, even if they are doing — in their own way — something that we want to see done, we advocate working class political and organisational independence from them and what they do. We tell the labour movement that it should place neither trust nor reliance in any bourgeois force.
We know that any “progressive” role played by the USA, Britain, the EU, or whatever, will be shaped and warped by what they are, by their imperialism of colonial conquest or of trade and power.
A US-friendly, economically compliant regime is primarily what the US wants. Given that, they may go for well short of even a serviceable bourgeois democracy in order to “stabilise” Iraq.
The US is not trying to reduce Iraq to an old-style colony (as, for example, Russia was in Afghanistan and, say, Italy in feudal Ethiopia in the mid-1930s). But there is certainly a large dimension of imperialism in the US policy in Iraq.
If the USA were to pursue a comprehensive world wide “democratic foreign policy” , it would at one and the same time be pursuing, in that way, the goal of a world imperium for the US hyperpower. It is a serious possibility that the upshot of the US-Iraq war will be a long-term — and a possibly expanding — US “colonial” presence in the Middle East. We don’t know, yet. Possibly the US government doesn’t know.
A situation may develop in which the policy of the Lenin-Trotsky Communist International, in the era of colonial imperialism, would guide us. We would back a genuine national liberation movement, even one led by reactionaries (of course, without politically endorsing the reactionaries).
None of this implies the policy of the “reactionary anti-imperialists”. It does not imply that when the US and Britain are attempting to set up an Iraqi bourgeois democratic system and withdraw eventually (though that may mean after quite a few years) we back Islamic clerical fascists, Ba’thists and Sunni supremacists, shouting “troops out now”.
It does imply that, even while we hope for an outcome in Iraq in which the labour movement can develop, we look with cold eyes on the US (and Britain) in Iraq.
Our primary obligation is to tell the truth — first to ourselves — about what is happening and what may happen. The whole truth, including the truth about the “democratic imperialists”.
Nothing but the truth: we should not indulge in soft-headed, “pixilated” fantasies that the US bourgeoisie is a pure — or relatively pure — force for “democracy”.
Only in that way can we fight for working class political independence.
We reject the idea that working class policy can be worked out as a mere negative imprint of bourgeois policy. And we also scorn the cheap delusion that if we shout “good on you!”, “we’re with you!”, we can affect, shape or control what, in their own interest and for their own goals, they do.
We recognise that the cost of that cheap delusion-of-influence is a loss of political clarity, definition and identity for the erstwhile revolutionary socialists. We tell the truth about it if the bourgeoisie is or may be doing something “progressive”, but, as Trotsky put it, we are “the party of irreconcilable opposition”. We relate to the bourgeoisie in all circumstances with mortal working-class socialist hostility.
[This is an edited and reworked version of an article by Sean Matgamna which first appeared in Solidarity 3/63 to 3/65. That can be found on this site: part 1; part 2; part 3. It was a reply to Don’t think twice, it’s alright, published in Solidarity no 3/62. More on the Iraq page of this website.]