On anti-war slogans: lessons from two wars

Submitted by Anon on 8 October, 2005 - 3:33

American socialist Barry Finger argues the case for calling for “troops out now” in iraq

The AWL position on Iraq is difficult to understand, and — it would seem, at least from a distance — to be fraught with genuine ideological insights intimately entangled with equally real and no less disturbing political frailties.

Let me explain. The AWL is clear in its political opposition to the American occupation. It states that, while it does not call for the troops to stay and repudiates the cause they serve, that is, to secure the Gulf for American imperialism, neither does it raise the call for immediate withdrawal. It hesitates to do so for fear that such a withdrawal, prompted not by a mass popular uprising from below, but as a result of a reactionary insurgency, would likely lead to the annihilation of those very forces in Iraqi society that we look to for an alternative and revolutionary leadership in the Arab East, namely the workers’ and socialist movements, feminists, and national minorities. And in truth there can be no guarantees that such a precipitous withdrawal would not lead to the very disaster the AWL hopes to forestall.

Such fears can therefore hardly be dismissed as either misplaced or unjustified.

The problem, and this is the rather manifest and disturbing implication from which the AWL shrinks from addressing, is that the policy organisationally advanced for getting there — for moving in the direction of a socialist Middle East — inferentially resides on a provisional and tactical military reliance on imperialism. Conspicuous by its absence, the refusal to demand the immediate withdrawal of imperialist forces blatantly suggests, even to the most sympathetic of audiences, an interim appeasement program towards the status quo on this side of the imperialist battle lines. This is based on eerily familiar reasoning: namely, that the occupation provides the forces of Iraqi democracy with the necessary breathing spell during which it can reorganise and fortify itself for the democratic task of social reconstruction, which only it can see through to fruition.

It is eerily familiar precisely because every break from third camp socialism during the epoch of Stalinism — every “I chose the West” apologia — including Max Shachtman’s during Vietnam, Hook’s during World War Two, Macdonald’s and Irving Howe’s after the Communist colonisation of Eastern Europe was prefaced by a similar rationale.

The AWL freely admits and ruthlessly exposes the tawdry hypocrisy of American war aims. It steadfastly refuses to take moral or intellectual responsibility for the imperialist intervention. Yet, by refusing to call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupation forces, it is proceeding down the path trodden by so many past revolutionary Macbeths, that of seeking a social and political gain from the crime of imperialism without actually advocating it. Can the AWL realistically expect to withstand the gravitational pull that such ideological compromises exerted over previous generations of socialist militants?

The AWL is acutely sensitive to the divergent approach advocated for Iraq in contrast to Vietnam, and evades the issue by insisting on secondary and unconvincing dissimilarities. It often points out that Ho Chi Minh led a “genuine”? national liberation movement, whereas the Iraqi “resistance” is sectarian, meaning Sunni Islamisist or Sunni Ba’athist, and thereby presumably, unable to lead a unified struggle. But why raise this issue if not to justify a previous departure — in the case of Vietnam — from a consistently democratic anti-imperialist foreign policy?

The point, on the contrary, is that both forces, totalitarian, reactionary and blood-stained to the core, are/were nevertheless absolutely correct on the national question, insisting that the US ruling class has no legitimate right to dictate, shape or direct theirs or any other country’s future.

The AWL has invoked an argument, historically associated with the inter-war Trotskyist movement, defencist with respect to the Soviet Union, and later contentiously adapted by Hal Draper, to assess the circumstances under which socialists might militarily support forces in the national struggle, native bourgeois or nascent bureaucratic collectivists, that they cannot lend political support to. But even here, the relevance is elusive.

It placed Hal and his immediate comrades in a strange bind for democratic revolutionary socialists — campaigning for an NLF victory over the US and its puppets, while calling for revolutionary opposition by the working class to the incipient bureaucratic ruling class that would result from that victory.

Was this not essentially the mirror image of the “I chose the West” approach, but with the plus and minus signs reversed; a call for a provisional appeasement towards a blatantly undemocratic alternative in the hope that such a victory could be made short lived?

Draper quite simply nullified the essential distinction between bourgeois-led national liberation movements in the anti-colonial struggle, in which the “short lived” prospect was well founded, and Communist led national liberation movements. Bourgeois-led movements sought to upend the secondary economic and political role the international order had relegated them to internally. They thereby raised demands that were inimical to the world imperialist system while, at the same time, remaining extremely weak and therefore dependent on the very western elements that repressed them. They sought the utopia of world capitalism without the inequality of an imperialist world order.

Because of these contradictions, the bourgeois led movements — even if authoritarian — raised demands that could not be fulfilled by their own capitalist leaderships. This opened the door for the working class to expose the treacherous nature of the capitalist leadership in the course of struggle, to appeal to other oppressed sectors on that basis and to rally these forces in an effort to supplant the native capitalist class. This was the process that pushed the Bolsheviks to the head of the Russian revolution and which constituted the theoretical basis for the theory of permanent revolution.

But Communist led forces, unlike bourgeois led anti-colonial movements, quite clearly were capable of consistently implementing the anti-capitalist demands of their movement and replacing the existing order with their own reactionary states. It was for that reason that we cannot view Communist-led movements in the same way that Marxists viewed bourgeois led national liberation movements of the past. There was no political disconnect, intermittent “sellouts” of the Tito variety notwithstanding, between the bureaucratic order they wished to establish nationally and the international order they sought to expand.

Islamic fundamentalism is also anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, but in a special sense. It is, in its minimal program, against private capital linked to imperialism, and therefore to a world economic order that introduces a permanent portal for cultural challenge to Islam as a political system. But it is also anti-capitalist in a more pervasive sense in that it makes no effort to subordinate its interpretation of Koranic law to the well being of capitalist accumulation. It is based on a system of laws that are not subject to human intervention and consequently expresses itself as a totalising ideology.

Similar to Communism, political Islam arises from the vacuum created by the failure of socialism. Rather than raising democratic demands that it is incapable of realising, the Islamists force all other social and political elements to the background. The consolidation of its order would set back the forces of production, shrink the economic base of society and thin the ranks of the working classes. The break with Islamism consequently takes on a transitional character in Iraq and the Middle East today.

Where such Islamist state power exists, as in Iran, the elemental struggle for political democracy and individual liberties are, as they were under Stalinism, the central issues of class struggle.

Ethnic chauvinists in a multinational society, it is true, disqualify themselves from leadership in the national struggle. They are constitutionally incapable of rallying the masses around a political program which nakedly privileges their own sectarian interests, and must instead rely exclusively, as we see, on force and intimidation.

But I suspect, that it is not the ethnic breakdown of the Iraqi resistance, but its thoroughly reactionary and anti-democratic character that is so abhorrent to the AWL. If this were not the case, if you really sought to follow Draper, then consistency would compel you — should, for instance, the Al-Mahdi Army of Shi’a cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr coalesce with the Sunni opposition thereby forming a multi-ethnic front — to extend “military” support to this broadened resistance.

Were this to happen, the AWL would no longer have a language or a set of arguments to justify the distinction it raises between its orientation in the two conflicts. I suggest then that the AWL cannot hinge its support for the NLF and its opposition to the current state of the Iraqi resistance, then, on an ethnic detail.

Either it stands consistently both as a force for democratic affirmation and revolutionary opposition or it blurs its distinctive reason for being.

Solidarity with the nascent elements of the Iraqi third camp will never be compatible with “military” support for the Islamist “resistance” even one capable of overcoming its present ethnic particularism. This conclusion is certainly an integral aspect of the whole AWL approach, one which places solidarity with the nascent elements of Iraqi working class democracy at its centre; its justification seems, insofar as it has been placed in a larger historical and political context, to be based on an unnecessary analytical inconsistency.

If my suspicions are correct, then the issue is how to square this political circle, to reconcile the Iraqi proposition with the previous and mutually exclusive “military” support extended to the Vietnamese NLF? How is it possible to have a consistently democratic anti-imperialist policy? Let’s re-examine Shachtman’s position on Vietnam.

Shachtman argued that the basis for a Vietnamese third camp, by which he meant the creation in struggle of an alternative from below, resided exclusively in the south, where independent trade union struggles, peasant organisations and Buddhist resisters maintained a stubborn presence against the repressive regimes of the South and the threat of Stalinist reprisals and forced cooptation. That alternative no longer existed as a viable political force in the North, having been physically eliminated in the late 40s.

He drew the conclusion similar to that which the AWL applies to Iraq, namely that socialism and democracy in Vietnam were crucially linked to these beleaguered elements. But he went a step further and identified the presence of the American military as providing the necessary cover for these elements, which, if removed would doom any hope for a progressive resolution to the Vietnamese question.

Of course he was not blind to the brutal nature of that intervention. What was decisive, as far as Shachtman was concerned, was a Democratic administration under Johnson crucially dependent on a progressive alliance of American trade unions, middle class liberals and civil rights activists. It was precisely the reliance on these domestic forces in the American system which, he argued, could reliably be counted on to brake the suppressive predilections of the dictatorship in the South as the price for their continued war support.

Shachtman therefore sought to intervene in a peculiar way in the anti-war movement: to resist the call for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of American troops and to insist instead on a call for “negotiations now” with the NLF and the North so that the American presence could be prolonged.

He sought, in other words — bypassing and thereby repudiating a lifetime of socialist theory that he once so peerlessly propounded — to forge solidarity between those forces which constituted the raw material of an American third camp with parallel forces within Vietnamese society, relying on imperialism as a self-dissolving link in the process.

That approach proved to be nothing less than a disaster. For what Shachtman and his comrades underestimated, a failing to which the younger, revolutionary Shachtman could never have succumbed, was how the American imperial presence itself overwhelmed all other social and political questions. It was not the dictatorship of the South, nor the Stalinists of the North that in the end marginalised and isolated the Vietnamese third camp. It was the anti-imperialist struggle itself which stampeded activist oppositional elements into the Stalinist camp of national resistance and which deadened their senses towards other less immediately pressing social concerns.

This lesson should not be lost in the present context. The call for the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of imperialist armies is crucial and necessary democratic demand in support of the Iraqi third camp. But it would be wrong to see it merely as an abstract democratic principle.

The call for “troops out now” is an operative programmatic demand — an inescapable step in a struggle to forge a movement in solidarity with the Iraqi third camp. It is a call to remove the immediate irritant and chief recruiting agency for the “insurgency”. To fracture and peel away elements attracted to the cause of national liberation — though indifferent or confused about Islamism. It is a necessary preparatory step in widening the interstices of practical struggle and of creating a new reality in which political consciousness can develop.

• A reply will be published in the next issue

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