Bush in Babylon: the recolonisation of Iraq

Submitted by on 20 November, 2003 - 12:00

by Tariq Ali (Verso)

Tariq Ali, who achieved fame as figurehead of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the 1960s, recently wrote in the Guardian: "It [the Anglo-US presence] is an ugly occupation, and this determines the response... The key fact of the resistance is that it is decentralised - the classic first stage of guerrilla warfare against an occupying army. Yesterday's downing of a US Chinook helicopter follows that same pattern. Whether these groups will move to the second stage and establish an Iraqi National Liberation Front remains to be seen."

Bush in Babylon is the book-length version of the same train of thought. The American-led occupation of Iraq is nothing more than a rerun of colonialism; "resistance" to it is a variant of anti-colonial struggles, or the Vietnamese. Tariq Ali's last book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, was surprisingly good, at least as a source of information. The new one is simply dreadful. Unfortunately, it is sure to be one of the textbooks for activists in the anti-war movement.

As is usual with Ali, this is history told by people he has known personally. Sometimes, this method of storytelling - "I first met X at a conference in Damascus in 1976, and we argued over Turkish coffee until the early hours" sort of stuff - can be compelling, personalising, engaging. Sometimes, with Ali, it is. But after a bit, it wears thin. Here, it has worn very thin.

Ostensibly, Tariq Ali shares something of the worldview of the publishers of Solidarity: he used to be a member of what was then the International Marxist Group, British equivalent of the French LCR, an organisation for which we have some respect. Although Ali never considered himself a straightforward "Trotskyist", even then (he always said his main influence was Trotsky's biographer, Isaac Deutscher), he comes, broadly speaking, from that tradition. His comments on the Iraqi so-called resistance reveal how far apart, nevertheless, we are - how distant adherents of this same tradition can be. Nowhere in this book does he analyse the "resistance" - or ask himself whether the mere fact of opposing American "colonialism" is enough to earn the support of socialists. It seems, literally, not to have occurred to him.

Ali thinks within a paradigm in which the United States is the source of all political evil, and "resistance", guerrilla war, etc, against them is good, necessary, to be supported, as a matter of self-evident obviousness.

Ali identifies not with the working class organising itself independently and fighting for its liberation, but with "the left". His last book contained an analysis of the Iranian revolution which barely mentioned the working class. Here, too, his history of "class struggle" in Iraq is almost entirely about relations between nationalists and "communists". Admittedly, the book reads as if it was written in a great hurry - sentences which make no sense, etc - so perhaps he had too little time to research the history of the working class as opposed to the Communist Party. (For the latter he relies on Hanna Batatu's enormous and brilliant study, and somehow manages even to write about a dead scholar as if he was someone who invited him to dinner parties...)

This makes him sympathetic to those who split with the pro-Moscow CP in a more guerrillaist direction. It also leads him to a peculiar verdict: "The sectarian failure of the communists and nationalists to reach a compromise became a tragedy for Iraq and the region as a whole", he writes (p. 80), adding, predictably: "Israel's military victory in 1967 was only the most serious consequence." Failure to compromise wasn't the CP's chief defect: they called Qassem, the military nationalist who overthrew the pro-British monarchy, the "sole leader".

Ali fundamentally sees communists and nationalists as aspects of the same thing, as points on the same measure. In practice, this was certainly true, but for a different reason: the communist movement was only a more radical nationalism. For Ali, they are all shades of the same "left". The independent organisation and action of the working class plays no role, or a very secondary one, in this narrative.

There are already Iraqi socialists who resolutely do not support the "resistance" which Tariq Ali wants to defeat Bush. As trade unions and other working class organisations begin to emerge, it seems to me inconceivable that they will support them either. On the first weekend in Ramadan, Ba'thists called a general strike, and threatened Iraqis with retaliation if they should break it. Any genuine workers' movement would have organised resistance to these death threats against working class people by the representatives of their former oppressors.

Maybe - charitably - Tariq Ali is just reliving old struggles. Even if so, his book reveals a worldview that has utterly lost the plot.

Bush in Babylon is also not the best summary account of Iraqi history. Try, for instance, Iraq Since 1958 by Marion and Peter Farouk-Sluglett instead.

Reviewer: Edward Ellis

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