1) TO CONDEMN OR NOT CONDEMN?
2) THE "BURNING, IMMEDIATE QUESTION".
3) BACK TO THE CHESS BOARD
4) THE ISSUE IS AGENCY
1) TO CONDEMN OR NOT CONDEMN?
I’ve found the bogging down of the debate in the question of whether we would condemn/not condemn/oppose/support/advocate/call for/take responsibility for a particular action (specifically, an Israeli attack) rather unhelpful. They’re all potentially confusing categories and on a certain level, talking about “condemnation” is all a bit abstract anyway; the key thing is how such “condemnation” (or otherwise) translates into concrete action for us, or actions we concretely advise workers elsewhere to take.
Comrades have talked about opposing in general Israeli air-strikes but potentially not condemning particular attacks if they were responses to a perceived existential threat. I think this is ridiculous (for reasons I’ll make clear later) but it proves that “opposition” and “condemnation” are murky and contested categories when dealt with in the abstract. To give another example, one might very well have “condemned” NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 (because it was indiscriminate and done by bourgeois forces for bourgeois reasons) but not “opposed” it (because successful “opposition” would’ve in all likelihood led to the genocide of the Kosovars). The point is that deciding whether to “condemn” or “oppose” something will only take you so far, and having a debate strictly on that terrain isn’t especially useful.
2) THE “BURNING, IMMEDIATE QUESTION.”
In the article “The left must say no to the Mullah’s bomb”, the author (peculiarly it is signed from the entire AWL) asserts that “the burning, immediate question” is that of the potential acquirement of nuclear weapons by the Iranian regime.
Is it? As Sacha Ismail points out in his excellent article “No to an Israeli attack on Iran”, “the US government itself, as Solidarity 1/136 reported, has concluded that the Islamic Republic has probably suspended its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Nor was/is Iran close to achieving its nuclear goals.”
In what sense therefore is the Iranian ruling-class’s nuclear aspiration “the burning, immediate question”? I would argue that sabre-rattling against Iran by the US and Israel are in fact somewhat more “burning” and “immediate.”
Sean’s original article presents the ability (not just the desire, but the actual real-time ability) of the Iranian ruling-class to pose an existential threat to Israel as a matter of fact. But this is far from the case.
Whether or not the capability exists, we should certainly criticise the desire. We should polemicise against those on the left who do not criticise (or, worse, endorse) such a desire. But we have a responsibility to remain level-headed and tell the truth. The notion of this as "the burning, immediate question" appears new to me; Sacha points out that recent issues of our own paper have reported America's conclusions that Iran has ceased its nuclear programme. If the question was really "burning" and "immediate", why not attempt to repudiate the US government's position and denounce it for not being sufficiently opposed to Iran's nuclear ambitions? Perhaps because Sean (or whoever wrote the article) has decide to declare the question "burning" and "immediate" as a retrospective corrective to a distorted analysis that fails to address what really is the "burning, immediate question"; how can workers on all sides organise against the regional or global imperialist ambitions of all powers?
3) BACK TO THE CHESS BOARD
Comrades who have followed the debate over Iraq may be familiar with an analysis I made of the perspective of some majority comrades as armchair geopolitical analysts, limited to scenario-mongering over the game-board of Iraq and speculating about what might happen if one or another bourgeois game-piece was removed from play. There is more than a dose of that perspective at work in Sean and others’ thinking on this issue, too.
Serious assessment of geopolitical tensions, the projects and intentions of bourgeois governments, their capacity to carry out these projects and so on are all important and the AWL tends to engage in them more seriously than anyone else on the left. But all such assessment and analysis is utterly pointless if it doesn’t serve to flesh out a more important set of assessments and analyses; what is the condition of the workers’ movement? Is it capable of imposing itself politically? If not, why not? What must it do to get to such a stage?
From the point of view of abstract geopolitical analysis, Sean’s handwringing (the only word for a perspective which asks “who are we to condemn [Israel]”? The answer, of course, is that we are the collective memory of the working class with every right to condemn the militarism and aggression of any bourgeois government) makes sense. But from a class perspective, it explodes (no pun intended). Looking at a potential Israeli strike on an Iranian nuclear facility from the point of view of its impact on class struggle in the region makes it abundantly obvious that we should oppose it, that we should mobilise against it, and that we should counsel workers more capable of immediately effecting the situation to do likewise. Totally aside from the potential civilian slaughter such an attack would unleash (who’s to say that a botched bombing of a nuclear facility wouldn’t lead to an Iranian Chernobyl?), I think it’s beyond question that the Israeli ruling-class would use such an attack to drag workers behind national chauvinism (undoubtedly invoking the “existential threat” posed to them by Iran’s machinations) and that the Iranian ruling-class would do likewise.
If the argument is that a Middle East free from “the Mullah’s bomb” (or the potential for it) is worth momentarily sucking up our generalised opposition to the Israeli government for, this makes even less sense. By this logic, an Iraq rid of the Ba’athist state – opening up opportunities for workers’ organisation unseen for a generation – was surely worth not opposing or at least “not condemning”? But we did condemn and oppose and mobilise against, because we knew that regardless of the potentially progressive consequences of a given imperialist adventure, we cannot separate the specific action from the overall class interests in which it is carried out.
“Who were we” to condemn and oppose and mobilise against the US government in a war it said was for democracy, and to fight a terrorist threat to its own people? We were people who knew its real intentions. When and if Israel attacks Iran, we must be people who know and explain that the regional imperialist ambitions of the Israeli government and actions carried out in pursuit of them cannot ultimately guarantee the security of the Israeli-Jews. It acts to consolidate its own position as a regional imperialist power, against a threat from another aspirant regional imperialist power. An Israeli attack on Iran would be, unambiguously, an inter-imperialist war.
If we forget these facts, where will we stop? If we forget these facts we may as well ask ourselves “who are we” to condemn the Israeli colonial project in Palestine. After all, aren’t they just keeping down a terroristic, existential threat to their own existence? Yes, they do it in “blundering” bourgeois ways and for their own reasons, but as long as there’s no united workers’ movement capable of smashing Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, “who are we” to condemn the only force capable of doing it – the Israeli ruling-class and its army. In reality this position would make more sense; Hamas and other Islamist militia groups pose a much more meaningful threat to the Israeli-Jews and their self-determination than the Iranian government, which is held back from doing what many of its members may well (secretly or openly) wish for by a whole variety of factors, not least the one Sean himself states (that any attack would “throw Iraq [where Iran has huge regional imperialist interests] back into the worst chaos”). If Iran somehow developed the capacity to launch an air strike on America, who would we be to condemn that? Surely, the Iranian government would only be pre-emptively defending itself against a huge imperialist power led by a deranged religious zealot that has openly declared its intention to menace Iran’s self-determination?
The scenario is, of course, preposterous. Of course we would condemn such an attack without a second thought. Why, then, does our basic knowledge of the interests in which competing imperialist and regional imperialist powers act seem to fail us where Israel is concerned? The attempt to imbue this conflict with the character of one between bourgeois democracy and fascism is incredibly crude, and even in such situations where such a conflict is unambiguously taking place (World War 2, for example) the best elements of our tradition still opposed both sides!
In summary, when the politics of the chess board take exclusive precedence over the politics of the workplace, we risk giving ruling-classes carte blanches. I’m sure that Tom, Sean et al have in their heads some idea of how they think Israeli, Iranian, Iraqi, American and British workers should intervene into the geopolitical situation they (rightly) spend so much time analysing. But the fact that they consider actually setting this out to be of so little importance as to never mention it represents for me what is fundamentally wrong with their politics on this question and, I feel, the Middle East more broadly.
4) THE ISSUE IS AGENCY
The workers’ movement in Iran is probably not strong enough to put a halt to the nuclear ambitions of its rulers. The Israeli workers’ movement certainly isn’t. Must we, therefore, with however heavy a heart, abrogate the hope for “a world where the workers of Israel, Iran, Iraq were united in opposition to all their rulers, and strong enough to get rid of them” to another day, hold our noses and pick the least-bad bourgeois option apparently on offer?
This is a perspective of permanent abrogation. If you hold your nose for too long you cease to be able to breathe properly.
Nothing prevents us from saying openly that a given imperialist adventure may have a positive consequence. But we say this in a framework which despite any potential positive outcome or side-effect tells the truth about the interests in which it is carried out and emphasises constantly the only means by which a better future may be carved out of regional and global inter-imperialist firefighting; independent working-class struggle.
I ask Tom, Sean, Mark and others who think there’s nothing wrong with Sean’s initial article or that we’d be right to not condemn/not oppose/whatever an Israeli attack on Iran – what would you advise an Iranian worker to do? What would you advise an Israeli worker to do? As his or her ruling-class gears up for war, pumping out propaganda about national unity and the national interest, what should they do? How should they act? Should they attempt sabotage the war effort? If so, why?
I don’t ask these questions because I believe Sean et al are incapable of answering. I ask them because the fact that what they have written so far makes no attempt to even acknowledge the importance of these questions expresses the fundamental flaws in their politics.
I believe that revolutionaries in the Israeli labour movement should propagandise vociferously against any Israeli war-effort, explaining clearly Israel’s role as a regional imperialist power and explaining how this impacts on the material quality of life for Israeli workers. I believe they should attempt, wherever possible, to actively sabotage any war effort including refusing to move munitions. I believe they should also be clear about the nature of the Iranian regime and its imperialist aspirations while pointing out to other Israeli workers that class struggle takes place inside Iran just as in any country and that they have more in common with Iranian workers than they do with the Israeli-Jewish bosses attempting to convince them that bombing Iran is in their best interests.
In Iran, I believe revolutionaries in the labour movement should do whatever they can to oppose and sabotage the Iranian government’s nuclear programme and make clear that any nuclear capacity it was able to develop would be used to consolidate the power of the Iranian government, including its power to crush internal, working-class, dissent. They should make whatever links they can with workers elsewhere in the region, and in Britain and the US, on the basis of appealing for material solidarity for their own struggles and supporting attempts to prevent outside military intervention against Iran which would set these struggles back.
These perspectives are not comprehensive programmes for Israeli or Iranian labour. To some extent they are basic Marxist generalities. But I believe that the task of third-campists in every situation is to address themselves specifically to the question of how the working-class can impose itself as an independent force and, if it is incapable of immediately doing so, how it can grow. In some situations, where we do not have direct links with any element within the labour movement, restating basic Marxist generalities may be all we can do.
This does not preclude geopolitical analysis, but any such analysis must remain firmly anchored to, and put to the service of, a perspective that maintains the agency of the working-class. For me the worst aspect of Sean’s original article was not that he considered the possibility of not condemning an Israeli attack but that he relegated independent working-class politics to the level of a non-starter.
Sean writes: “We as socialists want Ahmedinejad to be sent to hell not by the Israeli and American armies and airforces, but by the Iranian working class and the oppressed nations in the Iranian state… but if the Israeli airforce attempts to stop Iran developing the capacity to wipe it out with a nuclear bomb, in the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel?”
The answer is obvious. It’s in the first half of his own formulation. In the name of the alternative of the working-class and the oppressed nations in Iran and the Middle East more broadly. If we give up on that alternative then we negate our own politics.