Bob Gould, 2003

East Timor and bombings in Iraq


Source: Marxmail, August 22, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter


Tom O’Lincoln is a master of the short grab-jab designed to score a point, often a pretty ultraleft one. The little item on Jose Ramos Horta, the death penalty and the Iraq UN bombing is vintage Tom. This matter requires a bit of consideration and some careful investigation.

O’Lincoln tries to score a passing point against people like myself and the DSP, who supported the military intervention in East Timor, with heavy-duty rhetoric about Horta being brought to power on imperialist bayonets. What an insult to the Timorese people.

The Timor independence movement, which is considerably more than Ramos Horta in any case, came to power in a complex series of events, of which the trigger point was the heroic vote of the Timorese masses for independence in the referendum, with consequent bloody cost to themselves.

At that point, the evolution of events forced a previously reluctant US and Australian imperialist military to point their bayonets at the Indonesian military as the least dangerous solution from their point of view to what had become a hopeless problem for imperialist politics.

At that moment, the imperialist bayonets pointed at the Indonesians, which forced the Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor, were momentarily a very useful thing a singularly rare event for imperialist bayonets.

I don’t particularly want to revisit this question, because I made a sustained argument on it on Marxmail in two long posts two or three months ago, and if I remember rightly, O’Lincoln made very little attempt at a serious response, just a few jabs like this latest one.

In addition to this, despite the fact that I disagree with Ramos Horta’s pro-imperialist stance on the Iraq war, and that I disagree with him totally about the death penalty, I think the tone of Tom’s attack on him is pretty stupid, particularly the implication that he has always been an imperialist stooge.

He certainly wasn’t that during the time when he conducted a rather lonely struggle for East Timorese independence, and it’s from that long struggle that he derives his still continuing authority with the East Timorese masses.

When he made his first utterance in support of the Iraq war, I wrote an open letter to him in a careful, pedagogic way, as a legitimately aggrieved long-time supporter of East Timorese independence, sharply disagreeing with his views on the Iraq war.

It didn’t make it into the op-ed pages of the Australian bourgeois press, for which it was intended, but some people in East Timorese activity, working for the Independent Teachers Union, picked it up and emailed it to a number of contacts in East Timor, and it was subsequently emailed all over East Timor by activists there.

I would recommend my approach rather than Tom’s to anyone who might want to get an audience in East Timor for opposition to the Iraq war.

The brutal facts of the matter are that the net effect of the UN intervention in East Timor, including the role played by the now-deceased Brazilian diplomat, was to create a small, ramshackle, independent state of East Timor with embryonic bourgeois democracy, the right to form trade unions and engage in political agitation, etc. This set-up in East Timor beats the hell out of the previous Indonesian occupation and certainly beats the hell out of the current Indonesian occupation of Aceh and West Papua.

The argument that the attempt by the ruling class to use the East Timor intervention to prettify imperialist acts in other places, such as Iraq, refers to a real problem, but to equate the significance of that limited ideological benefit with the physical survival and liberation of the East Timorese is to put an equals sign between two things of vastly different order of magnitude.

I find myself in the same boat, on this question, as Nick Fredman of the DSP, and I draw attention to the letter in the bourgeois press in Australia by DSP member Vanessa Hearman, who travelled around East Timor as the Brazillian diplomat’s translator. I find Tom O’Lincoln’s reference to Vanessa Hearman in a subsequent post, condescending and insulting.

I have other objections to the thrust and tone of Tom’s post. I have been involved, in this instance, along with the DSP and other socialist groups and individuals, in defending the proposition in the Sydney antiwar movement that we should strenuously support the demand for the withdrawal of all invading troops from Iraq. I am also opposed to the presence of the UN in Iraq in any governing or occupying role. I’m emphatically not opposed to the presence of the UN in a role of delivering civilian aid, which the Iraqi masses desperately need.

As a Marxist all my life, I’m also opposed to the use of individual terror, in general, as a strategy, and I’m particularly opposed to its use against civilian targets — even a bourgeois diplomat, such as the Brazilian bloke.

There has been a very moving picture in the Australian press of a young Australian woman, Penny Ryan, your average liberal leftist do-gooder, who has spent some years working for UNICEF in Iraq, on landmine projects, and who has now been injured in this brutal bombing.

I know a couple of people who know this courageous woman well, and they’re naturally pretty upset. I don’t regard the displays of emotion, even by Tory and Labor politicians on television, as anything unusual. They seem to me to be normal expressions of feeling and grief.

I’m not greatly taken with either the sensitivity or the strategic nous displayed in Tom O’Lincoln’s post. The Marxist tradition is to oppose individual terror as a political method. This opposition goes back to Marx and Engels and has been the entrenched view of leaders and theoreticians such as Lenin and Trotsky.

Such courageous national and socialist revolutionaries as, for instance, the Irish revolutionaries of 1916, took great care to try to avoid civilian casualties in the Easter Rising. The Vietnamese and Cuban revolutionaries and the Chinese revolutionaries took considerable care to avoid civilian casualties in their guerilla wars.

In the complex situation in Britain, concerning IRA or splinter IRA bombings, involving irresponsibility towards civilians, despite their general solidarity with the struggle of the Irish people the overwhelming majority of British Marxists and Marxist organisations, including the International Socialist Tendency of which you were a part for so long, have unequivocally condemned such things as the Brighton bombing, the Omagh bombing, etc.

It seems to me imperative for tactically astute Marxists in countries like Australia, Britain and the US, in particular, to take an unequivocal stance against such primitive methods as the September 11 bombing, the Bali bombing, and this particular atrocity in Iraq, all directed primarily against civilian targets.

The tone of your comment on the Brazilian diplomat de Mello, shortly after his assassination, seems to suggest you are arguing that as he was, you say, a major tool of imperialism, the major issue raised by this event is his reactionary role.

I believe such a posture and demeanour is quite wrong in principle from a Marxist point of view, and tactically disastrous for Marxists, particularly in the US, Australia and other countries that may be targets of such bombings in the future.

I suggest that you carefully re-read Tariq Ali’s recent book on Islamic fundamentalism, which in my view, is by far the best Marxist balance sheet of this phenomenon, and take careful note that, while in a number of ways the crimes of imperialism have created the basis for the wide expansion of this kind of reactionary fundamentalist movement, that at its heart and core it is a thoroughly reactionary phenomenon, to be fought and rejected by Marxists.

It’s one of the sad ironies of the situation that today (August 22, 2003), in my inbox, I got two major articles on the event. One of them was a very rounded and useful analysis by Robert Fisk, in which he makes the general point that the success of the terror bombing against the UN produces a considerable crisis for US imperial policy in Iraq.

Fisk, however, is extremely careful to underline his own condemnation of this brutal act of individual terror. Also in my inbox, posted on the Socialist Register site by Harsh Kapoor, is the Brazilian diplomat’s last speech, a large part of which is devoted to trying to persuade the government figures and businessmen listening to him that the problem of terrorism, etc, can only be solved by addressing the poverty and misery in the Third World in immediate and concrete ways. No doubt, in expressing this view de Mello was representing the views of a liberal section of the international bourgeoisie.

There can be no serious doubt that de Mello was a serious bourgeois politician and diplomat. In many ways his views and activities diverged from the views, interests and activities advanced by Marxists like you and me.

Nevertheless, he did one spectacularly useful thing in his life in presiding over the righteous independence of East Timor. I take the sharpest objection to him and a number of other civilian employees being blown away in the way they were, and I’m convinced that that kind of action can only damage the interests of the working class and the anti-colonial struggle.

I put this all to you a bit sharply, Tom. You and I are both old hands, and I think the issues that divide us are too important to beat around the bush.