Why socialists can not support the USA in Iraq (part 2)

Submitted by AWL on 9 March, 2005 - 9:16

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.

Supervising history?

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!