“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.
“In time of war, the frontiers will be altered, military victories and defeats will alternate with each other, political regimes will shift. 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.
“Only the growth of their international offensive will put an end not alone to episodic ‘dangers’ but also to their main source: class society.”
(Trotsky, A Step Towards Social Patriotism, 7 March 1939)
Following a phone call between Turkey’s President Erdoğan and President Trump on 6 October the White House issued a statement saying that Turkey would soon carry out a military offensive into Kurdish-administered northern Syria. US troops began to withdraw from the area.
Turkey invaded the border areas, threatening to suppress the Kurds there and resettle those areas with a pro-Turkish population.
Socialists were rightly revolted by this, and protested on the streets around the world about the plight of the Kurds.
Some chose to call on the British state, or Britain “with the international community”, to send in troops or enforce a “no-fly zone”.
To criticise the US withdrawal as a betrayal of the Kurds, rather than hail it as an “anti-imperialist” victory, is one thing. For socialists positively to recommend the British military as the force we should look to for defending the Kurds was another.
As revolutionary socialists our goal is to create a militant, fighting “Third Camp” of the organised working class, against all the established powers. To call on Britain to send troops or enforce a “no fly-zone” was not only fantasy — there was no chance that Britain was going to take the risk of war against some or all of Turkey, Assad, and Russia — but radically militated against that basic goal.
It would miseducate ourselves, and those who listen to us, to put faith in bourgeois military machines. Those bourgeois military machines do not and will not listen to us.
To make it more concrete, who would we be calling on to implement the “no-fly zone”? The more “realistic” variants would be to call on Trump and the US generals to reverse their withdrawal. Or on Putin and Assad and their generals, who in fact did move against the Turkish invasion, to limit it and at the same time regain some control in majority-Kurdish areas.
Most commonly, the call was for “the international community” and NATO to intervene, ignoring that the US is central to both NATO and “the international community”. Regardless of the variations between the different forces in NATO, all of them are representatives of big-power military forces and they act for their own interests. They are not swayed by the calls of socialists or labour movements. It is delusory for us to believe otherwise.
Even were we to organise demonstrations as large as the recent anti-Brexit ones or those against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we would not shift the tactics of the commanders and generals. Were we strong enough to force any of those big powers to intervene against their will, then we would be strong enough to contest power with them.
In that circumstance our duty would be to do everything we could to take power. It certainly would not be to sow illusions in the imperialists as benign defenders of the Kurds or self-determination.
During the Kosova war in 1999, Workers’ Liberty refused to join the cry by supporters or semi-supporters of Serbia to “stop the [NATO] bombing”. It is a misunderstanding to think that we positively supported NATO or its campaign of bombing, or that we called in advance for NATO to bomb or invade.
“Workers’ Liberty described what NATO was doing: ‘They throw bombs at the Serbs, most of whom don’t know the scale of Serbia’s slaughter and ethnic cleansing in Kosova. They do not... ally or seek to ally with either the Serbs or the Kosovar people…
“They deploy a crude and savage weapon, bombing, for the wrong political goals, at best the Balkan status quo... NATO went to war to force the Rambouillet ‘agreement’ on the Serbian regime…
“Rambouillet was not primarily pro-Albanian. Rambouillet aimed to curb, stifle and frustrate Albanian nationalism... NATO remained fundamentally concerned with securing stable conditions in the Balkans for the ‘imperialism of free trade’ and with asserting US power, not with the rights and interests of the Kosovars... We could not, did not, and do not positively support NATO” (quotes from Workers’ Liberty 55, 56, 57).
NATO intervened in Kosova at America’s behest because of the huge disruptive effect Serbia’s attempt genocide could have had on that whole corner of Europe. It carried out essentially a “global policing” operation to ensure that capitalism could continue freely functioning in as wide an area as possible. It was not concerned with Kosova self-determination: Britain, in particular, had long urged the Kosovars to submit to Serbian rule and hope for mild improvements to come with time.
We refused to echo slogans such as “Stop the bombing!” or “Down with NATO!” when the only possible meaning of these slogans was that we wanted to let the Serbs carry out their genocide unfettered. We refuse to raise slogans whose effects if carried out were counterposed to our programme.
But that did not mean that we positively supported NATO.
Beyond Kosova, comrades might look for further historical precedent in our position on the Iraq war of 2003. We opposed the invasion under the slogan “No to war! No to Saddam!”. When the Sunni-supremacist and ultra-Islamist “resistance” emerged, we opposed both that resistance and the US occupation, and refused to raise the slogan “Troops Out”. As we explained at the time:
“AWL was against the war. We preach ‘no political trust or confidence’ in the American, British, or any ruling class, in their states, their politicians, or their armies. We analyse the motives of the American, British and other ruling classes in their dealings with Iraq; solidarise with the new Iraqi labour movement wherever it clashes with the occupiers; indict US/UK misdeeds unsparingly; say to those Iraqi socialists whom we can reach and to people in Britain that they cannot rely on the US and UK to bring democracy.
“We long ago, before the war, pointed out that the occupation of Iraq would not curb Islamist terrorism.
“That is enough for now.
“We say that the peoples of Iraq must have self-determination. We maintain a stance of hostility to the troops and we do not call on the British and Americans to stay.
“What we refuse to do, and it is the crux of our dispute with [some others on the left], is raise a ‘demand’, Troops Out Now, whose likely, calculable, practical consequences we do not want. Which may well bring on a catastrophe that will abort all the possibilities that the rising labour movement is opening for the working class of Iraq” (Sean Matgamna, Solidarity 3-81).
Again the precedent is clear. We did not call on the bourgeois forces to intervene, we were clear in our hostility and distrust in them.
We simply would not demand actions from them which, if they carried them out, would run counter to the interests of our people and our programme.
Transferred to the current situation in northern Syria, these politics translate as follows. We did not call in advance for the US to get out. As we have seen, Trump’s move has had bad consequences for the Kurdish people.
Yet we cannot and will not mis-educate ourselves, and those around us, by preaching faith in the US, NATO or any other force capable of intervening.
We remain on the lines indicated by Trotsky in 1939:
“We are not a government party; we are the party of irreconcilable opposition... Our tasks… we realise not through the medium of bourgeois governments… , but exclusively through the education of the masses through agitation, through explaining to the workers what they should defend and what they should overthrow.
“Such a ‘defence’ cannot give immediate miraculous results. But we do not even pretend to be miracle workers. As things stand, we are a revolutionary minority.
“Our work must be directed so that the workers on whom we have influence should correctly appraise events, not permit themselves to be caught unawares, and prepare the general sentiment of their own class for the revolutionary solution of the tasks confronting us.” (Leon Trotsky, The USSR in War, 1939).