Why socialists can not support the USA in Iraq (part 1)

Submitted by AWL on 9 March, 2005 - 9:09

By Sean Matgamna

[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.]

“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.