Is the AWL headed down the Shachtman road?

Submitted by Anon on 2 July, 2003 - 9:21

Not all our supporters agreed with Solidarity’s emphasis and use of slogans during the recent war on Iraq. The following contribution is by Mark Sandell. It was written in May. We will print responses in the next issue. We welcome other short contributions on this topic.

Our paper when Bush’s war on Iraq started (Solidarity 3/27) was inadequate and weak; it failed the test in the time of war. It also highlighted a drift in the politics of the AWL in the direction of lesser-evilism that has echoes of Shachtman’s political suicide.

The slogan “No to war, no to Saddam” was an excellent encapsulation of our Third Camp position before the invasion. It needed additional explanation and demands once the invasion had started. Without this additional explanation it was a pacifist slogan in the face of actual war and invasion.

In 1991, during the US/UN war against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, we attacked the slogan “Stop the war” because it was not clearly against blockades, sanctions and US imperialism. We called instead for “Troops out of the Gulf, Iraq out of Kuwait”. We launched a Troops Out campaign with Socialist Outlook and others. It was our key demand and the cutting edge of our propaganda. We argued that it put forward a vital demand on our own ruling class, we recommended that comrades read the Pathfinder book on the anti-Vietnam war movement in which “Troops Out” was the key demand. We promoted the fact that the US movement in 1991 was built on the “Troops Out” slogan instead of the feeble “No to war” (yes to sanctions) in the UK.

We said: “Iraq’s national rights… Yet there is more to it. The Iraqi ruling class pursues Iraqi aggrandisement. But in the war now unfolding Iraq risks being reduced to a semi-colony, or shattered completely, with Turkey, Iran and Syria grabbing portions of its territory.

“We should support Iraqi self-determination and Iraqi self-defence against the American blitzkrieg. Such support does not mean any political endorsement for Saddam Hussein, nor any let-up in the Iraqi workers’ struggle against him. It is wrong to give Saddam credit as an ‘anti-imperialist’. It would be equally wrong to deny support for Iraq’s self-defence against the US-allied assault on the grounds that, Iraq being sub-imperialist, the war is only a quarrel between thieves…

“When Iraq confronts the US in all-out war, the imperialism is that of the US. Socialists have no interest in seeing Iraq subjugated or pulverised.

“This war is different from the Falklands war. Argentina was not threatened, and was never likely to be threatened, with invasion, subjugation, dismemberment, destruction of its military-industrial base, or a blitzkrieg from the air.”

(War in the Gulf: Issues for Labour. Workers’ Liberty/Socialist Organiser pamphlet 1991.)

I was very active in the anti-war movement in 1991 and I cannot see how the above can be just ignored and forgotten when Iraq was being invaded and occupied for real in 2003. A footnote in the latest Workers’ Liberty magazine (2/3) says we got the emphasis wrong in 1991. If comrades think we were so totally wrong they should spell it out. I do not think we were wrong in 1991. I have been accused of “negativism”, and of siding with Saddam, being campist, etc. If that is true it is what the AWL did in spades in 1991.

In 2003 the uprising against Saddam never happened, the bitter fruit of the betrayal of the US/UN in 1991. AWL conference policy was clear about our approach in this situation:

“Given that this war certainly involves, one way or another, a US conquest of Iraq, we are for troops out of Iraq in pretty much any likely immediate situation; ‘troops out’ would become a prominent slogan in the event of mass popular resistance.”

This is very clear: with mass resistance to the US/UK, “troops out” (with additional slogans like “down with Saddam”, etc.) will become prominent. In pretty much any likely immediate situation we are for “troops out”. It was our major slogan, along with “Saddam out of Kuwait” and “Self-determination for the Kurds” in 1991, but during the eventual war of invasion in 2003 we did not even mention it in our paper!

The slippage into “lesser evil” politics is not posed positively in what we say but rather in what we do not say. There is nothing wrong with the SWP saying “Stop the war” but without ‘No to Saddam” it exposes their campist politics. Meanwhile, for the AWL, when the world’s most powerful imperialist invades a tenth-rate power, we do not even admit we want the troops out; we say “No to war, no to Saddam”. Do we want a ceasefire? Everyone to stop fighting because it’s bad? Peace and socialism? [This is a reference to the old Stalinist Communist Party’s slogan—arguing for peace in general while refusing to take sharp positions against imperialism.]

The paper ignored the conference policy in its coverage, and I think was soft on the US and UK invasion, signalling a slip to the lesser evilism of a victory for the US/UK being the best possible result as the unwritten political line of the paper. I have been accused of in some way siding with Iraq by arguing that we should have made it clear we wanted the troops out.

Yet in the latest edition of Workers’ Liberty the editorial says:

“Iraq is not a semi-colony. Nevertheless, the hugeness of the inequality between it and the USA, and the sweeping nature of the USA’s plans for conquest, makes the impending war something other than just inter-imperialist. However you classify it, Iraq faces the prospect of being pulverised if the USA needs to do that to secure the control that they want.

“The nearest historical parallel is the clash between Austria and Serbia in 1914…[explanation of the history]…That did not stop the Marxists from opposing Austria’s demands and ‘defending’ Serbia”.

And, later:

“We have to oppose the USA’s war militantly and sharply. In the circumstances that cannot but imply some species or degree of support for Iraq against the Americans and British. That political stand has to be taken without any sort of support for the Iraqi regime.”

The AWL should not defend the Iraqi state, the Iraqi regime or even the existence of Iraq if its people, the Kurds for example, want an independent state. What we must support is the self- determination of the peoples of Iraq against US imperialism. Why does it matter?

For sure if the Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi people do what the US wants post-occupation they will not face further starvation or mass murder. “Follow the free market, pro-US line and we won’t kill you.” Surely this is better than living under Saddam. Limited freedom is better than dictatorship, just don’t rock the capitalist boat. The iron fist in the silk glove (as Machiavelli told the prince) is the best way to rule. But we aspire to be the party of irreconcilable opposition and that is why, except when another issue overrides the right to self-determination, we champion that right even for imperialist states like Israel.

Already the Kurdish forces have been forced out of Kirkuk by the US. The idea that anyone including the Kurds are stupid enough to take on the US army to fight for their independence now is an important factor here.

Other results flow from the war too. The US/UK easy victory in Iraq is a bad result because it gives the US an even stronger hand in controlling the region, this is a bigger threat to any workers’ revolution. It has strengthened reaction in the US and the UK. It has laid down deeper roots for the poison of Islamist movements. To say all this is not to say it would be better if (in the world of total fantasy) Saddam had won.

A massive US military presence in the Middle East is a knife at the throat of any workers’ or popular movement. The fact that workers’ revolutions don’t exist, or may not exist in the near future, is not a justification for our acquiescence to US imperialism. The massive US military presence in the Middle East since 1991 is a prop for the semi-feudal Arab states, not an agent of bourgeois democracy. Where is the democratic Kuwait, the last war was fought for? The bourgeois American constitution is not the same thing as the US army or US foreign policy, ask a Colombian trade unionist. To wait and see if the US is going to be nice or nasty is wrong. To say there is a river of blood between the workers’ movement and US UK imperialism is not to forget that the local ruling class is just as much an enemy if less well armed and more susceptible to local class struggle. To pretend the US army can civilise the world is to join the Shachtmanites who ended up helping to run the AFL/CIO International section as an arm of the CIA. After all, barring a workers’ state, the USA is the most advanced capitalist country in the world.

Marxists’ support of self-determination is not just an abstract support for democracy, it is also programmatic, as Hal Draper explained in reprinted articles in the last edition of Workers’ Liberty:

“The right of Cuba (or any other country) to self-determination has absolutely nothing to do with whether we or anyone else approve of its government. This is, as we said, a democratic demand even under an undemocratic government.

“We would like to see the Castro regime overthrown by the Cuban people in favour of a regime of socialist democracy, but this task cannot be contracted out to American imperialism, which is interested only in installing a regime subservient to world capitalism.

“The conquest of Cuba by the US would only have served to confirm American imperialism in its conviction that it not only has the right to police the world in favour of capitalism, but that it can do so successfully and with impunity; and this conviction could only lead to more and more extensive ‘police actions’ of the Vietnam type. The consequence of this development could only be increased reaction at home—that is, if the US succeeded in getting away with it.”

A very poignant quotation now.

The only edition of Solidarity printed during the war had nothing to say about what we wanted. “No to war”, even with the Third Camp addition of “No to Saddam”, does not tell anyone reading our paper what we are campaigning for. We should have made it clear we wanted to get the US/UK troops out—if not in slogans like “US/UK troops out. Down with Saddam. Arm the democrats. Self-determination for the Kurds”, then at least in the text of our paper.

The logic of saying we can’t call for troops out even within the above slogans is that to say anything about the invasion is to imply support for Saddam. Logically this would be true of being anti-war. After all, didn’t the warmongers have a point when they said not to go to war would give Saddam a victory and would leave him in power?

  • Material from Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty on the war can be found here

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