Source: Marxmail, August 30-September 2, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
My battered, much read, much lent copy of Let History Judge (about Stalin) by the Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev starts with four quotes, two of which are:
“We need complete, truthful information. And the truth should not depend on whom it is to serve.” V.I. Lenin
“Self-criticism — ruthless, harsh self-criticism, which gets down to the root of things — that is the life-giving light and air of the proletarian movement.” Rosa Luxemburg.
I took up Tom O’Lincoln sharply about Timor and the Baghdad bombing to provoke a forthright discussion of some matters that are frequently referred to on Marxmail only in an indirect, rather moralising way.
It’s fair enough for my rather sharp tone with Tom to evoke a sharp response. In the event, Tom’s response was sensible and careful. His tone was a bit more circumspect than mine. As the discussion has developed, Tom has spelt out fairly definitely his opposition, as a Marxist, to that part of the violence in Iraq that is indiscriminate terrorism, and has further indicated his personal preference for non-violent labour organising in Iraq at this stage, rather than military clashes with the imperialist occupiers.
I didn’t quite anticipate that my points would push Jose P quite so severely over the edge, or into the stratosphere, and bring down on my head such thundering, deliberately insulting, anathemas. Jose, the Thunderer, prides himself on not being any kind of sectarian Trotskyist, but when the mood takes him, he can trade “foul stenches” and “capitulations to the pressure of bourgeois imperialist public opinion”, with the best of them, while implying even graver words of excomunication, from which he only refrains in deference to Louis Proyect’s rules. I don’t think the Thunderer is actually in much danger of Louis applying the rules to him.
A few times recently, when I’ve found myself in agreement with some of Jose’ s quite sensible posts, I’ve made a bit of a point of saying so publicly. The mental image of Jose grinding his teeth every time I agree with him has kind of appealed to my political sense of humour but, in retrospect, this may have been unwise, as it seems to have made a significant contribution to pushing him into the weirdest, most extravagant and extreme propositions, a long way from Marxism as I understand it.
My post also seems to have precipitated some pretty wild observations from Mark Lause and others. On the other hand, as I’ve indicated, O’Lincoln’s response is much saner and is informed by propositions and issues pretty basic to any proletarian Marxism. O’Lincoln points out that some of the bombings in Baghdad are terrorism and quite properly says: “Nevertheless, small elite bands or individual suicide bombers hitting non-military targets is terrorism, and it is not the way Marxists would fight the struggle.”
I have provoked Jose P into expressing, in a most extreme form, the kind of kneejerk, ultra-anti-imperialism, neglectful of other factors such as the national question, the particular interests of the working class, democratic demands etc, held by many whose opposition to the crimes of imperialism, particularly US imperialism, makes them blind to just about any other significant political question. It seems to me that this is the kind of outlook shared by quite a few contributors to Marxmail. From this point of view, a calm engagement with Thundering Jose and the propositions that he advances is very useful.
Jose P objects to my proposition that Marxists should condemn the terror bombing of the civilians in the UN compound in Baghdad. I would have thought that this proposition was, from a traditional Marxist point of view, unexceptionable. It has been routine for most British Trotskyist organisations, for instance, to condemn Irish Republican bombings which have, even inadvertently, blown away civilians. Such statements of condemnation have frequently been made by the Militant Group, the old WRP, the British SWP, and other groups.
This condemnation of bombing civilians has, with most of the groups, taken place alongside general support for the struggle of the Republican movement against the British occupation in Ireland, including its military aspect.
Jose the Thunderer gives himself a basis for condemning any such opposition to the Baghdad bombing in a most ingenious way. He becomes, in this context, what, here in Australia, is called, a “bush lawyer”, by attempting to define away the notion of “civilian”, asserting that the United Nations and all its works and the employees of non-government organisations associated with it, are in no sense civilians, and are therefore legitimate military targets.
His bourgeois bush lawyer legalism really takes rhetorical flight when he asserts that being concealed military instruments in civilian clothes, the UN staff don’t even qualify for the Geneva Convention and can be shot on capture. This seems to me just a little extreme, and completely unscientific and un-Marxist when applied to an assortment of international civil servants, NGO do-gooders and very serious-minded opponents of landmines such as Polly Brennan.
Jose P works himself into a real frenzy and says, without convincing justification, that what he defines as that the Iraqi popular resistance movement has declared general and comprehensive military war against the American occupier.
Jose P, the international jurisprudence expert cum bush lawyer, waxes eloquent about the illegality of the assault on Iraq, which is correct and useful when arguing against the US imperialist assault. He then, however, quite unreasonably extends this essentially juridicial argument to imply that the Iraqi masses are obliged to accept the government and leadership of the Baathist remnants, who he claims are conducting a kind of people’s war. One basic problem with this proposition is that Marxists deal in social forces and social realities. Questions of bourgeois legality are sometimes important, but they are usually not the whole story, from a Marxist point of view.
Jose P asserts: “There is no case to be made that the Iraq war is over. There can be no pretense that this is anything other than a military occupation authority in a time of war.”
I make a contrary assertion, which I believe is much more grounded in the realities of the current situation in Iraq. I say the military invasion by American imperialism, is more or less over. The Iraqi Army surrendered and the late and unlamented Baathist state of Saddam Hussein largely disintegrated. While not justifying the US imperialist assault on Saddam’s regime, which I strenuously fought against, nevertheless the military and structural collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime marks a new stage in developments.
The situation in Iraq now has something in common with the situation in Germany after the military defeat of Hitler’s regime by the Western allies and the Soviets. The Nazi regime, which had some popular support, as did the Saddam Hussein regime, was able to mount some rearguard “Werewolf” activity against the occupying powers, but that rapidly collapsed because, despite the fact that the Nazis had some support due to their fairly long period in power, and that some of the old state employees etc, military men and others, owed something to them, the occupiers had overwhelming military power, and most of the population hated the Nazis. Historical analogies are usually imprecise, but the present circumstances in Iraq bear resemblance to the circumstances in Germany after the military defeat of the Hitler regime.
The military and social facts of the situation are to some extent, independent of one’s views about the imperialist assault on Iraq.
Other historical analogies that are of some value in considering the present stage in Iraq are the situation in France after the surrender to the Nazis in 1940, the situation in Japan after the Japanese surrender to the allies in 1945, the situation in Vietnam after the original Geneva settlement that divided the country between North and South, the later situation in Vietnam after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, and the situation in Ireland between the defeat of the Easter Rising in 1916, and the recommencement of military operations against British imperialism in 1920.
In all those situations the first phase was dominated by the desire of the masses to re-establish normal social life, which asserts itself in many situations after war, military defeat, conquest and the collapse of dictatorial regimes.
In those instances from the above list in which serious military action against occupiers eventually emerged, it only did so after a period of reorganisation and political rebuilding by some coherent group with clear political aims, such as the French Resistance or the Sinn Fein IRA in Ireland, or the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong after 1960 in Vietnam.
Peter Boyle and Tom O’Lincoln have very usefully drawn attention to International Crisis Group assessment of Iraq. This group is an international, more or less social-democratic, think tank. The former Australian Labor foreign minister, Gareth Evans, is its principal officer, and despite its clear political biases its factual assessments, it is generally highly regarded.
A close reading of most journalists’ reports from Iraq and information from Iraqis in Australia suggests that the Crisis Group’s account is generally accurate. It hardly needs to be said that sporadic military actions by mainly Baathist or Islamic fundamentalist elements, opposed by the majority of the Iraqi people, hardly qualify as the serious military beginnings of a broadly based Iraqi resistance movement.
The Baathist regime was the legal government of Iraq according to bourgeois jurisprudence, but so, for that matter, was the government of Suharto in Indonesia and even the government of Hitler in Germany. It does not at all follow that Marxists are concerned to restore such reactionary bourgeois dictatorships if they fall, no matter how they fall. Surely the views and the experiences of the Iraqi masses are important in this respect.
The bloodthirsty Baathist dictatorship killed some hundreds of thousands of people. Iraq has about the same population as Australia and if somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people were murdered by an Australian dictatorship, it’s reasonable to suppose that their relatives and friends would be relieved when that dictatorship disappeared, whatever the instrument of its disappearance.
Most journalists report great hostility to the Baathists among most of the population. For instance, there are many thousands of peasants and workers in Iraq with one ear missing because they tried to avoid Saddam’ s military draft.
When the Saddam regime collapsed, hundreds of thousands of weapons disappeared into the population. Many of these have been acquired by earless workers, their relatives and friends. Most observers say there have been many many more violent acts against particular Baathist butchers and torturers than there have been against the occupying forces. This has been particularly the case in Shiite and Kurdish regions. Paul McGeough, a respected Australian liberal journalist, published a very informative first-hand account of these circumstances in the Sydney Morning Herald a few days ago.
I have no objection to Iraqi people defending themselves in any way necessary, including violently, against physical attacks on them by the imperialist occupiers. It would be amazing, indeed, if there were not quite a number of incidents of Iraqis defending themselves against US soldiers, given the chaotic situation in Iraq. I have no objection, either, to Iraqi people who have been victims of Baathist tyranny pursuing their Baathist torturers to get justice, and they are apparently doing so on an even larger scale than the episodic physical conflicts with the occupying troops.
I do, however, think it is strategically unwise for opponents of the imperialist occupation of Iraq to be taking primarily military action against the occupiers at this point, as I believe that it is likely to lack popular support in the population and is likely to be counterproductive to the development of a substantial successful movement against imperialist occupation. What I think about this, however, and what Jose P thinks about it, is not the decisive consideration. The primary consideration is what the Iraqi masses think about it, and the overwhelming evidence is that, at this point, most Iraqis are pretty pissed off with most violent acts from whatever quarter, and want normal social life restored.
I don’t know if Jose P has noticed substantial demonstrations, rather quixotically demanding of the imperialist occupier a more effective police presence to stop civil crime and looting, illogical though it may be to demand this of the US forces, which are the real source of the civil disorder.
It’s appealing emotionally to see the US occupiers getting a bad time, but I inevitably am drawn, like Tom O’Lincoln, to look at this question from the point of view of the independent mobilisation of the working class, the peasants and the masses in Iraq.
There are a large number of Iraqi refugees who have settled in Australia: Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis. Australian leftists like myself and others who have been active in the agitation in support of refugees have met many of them. I have met dozens and I haven’t met any who isn’t relieved and glad that the Baathist regime has been overthrown, including quite a number who, despite having had relatives and friends murdered by the Baathists, nevertheless opposed the Bush-Howard-Blair imperialist assault on Iraq.
They opposed the Bush war, but there’s no question of any of them of campaigning for the restoration of the Baathist regime, which is implied in Jose P’s diatribe. He clearly infers that the Iraqi masses should support the military acts, including terrorist acts, of Baathist Werewolves, for the retoration of the regime.
Jose P should look at the website of the Workers Communist Party of Iraq, which is well represented amongst Iraqis in Sydney. If he thinks I’m misrepresenting the views of Iraqi leftists, he should look at that site. The WCP opposes the other CP’s participation in the quisling Bremer pseudo-administration, but it nevertheless strenuously opposes any restoration of Baathist power by “people’s war” or any other means. It’s not really in the nature of human beings, including secular Iraqi leftists, to favour the restoration to power of a dictatorship that has killed your relatives and political associates, and will kill you if it gets the chance.
I get my hair cut at a Greek hairdresser in Newtown. Two of the four hairdressers there are youngish Shiite refugees from Baghdad. I’ve struck up a cautiously friendly relationship with them over the past couple of years. They are in relatively constant phone contact with their relatives back home in Baghdad and have always expressed intense hostility to the Saddam Hussein regime. They describe the massacres of the Shiites in various uprisings very vividly. Nevertheless, before the war started, the more articulate one said that if the US invaded Iraq, he was willing to go back to fight for Iraqi independence.
Since the war, their attitude has changed a bit. The articulate one, who is still constrained by an oppressive refugee bridging visa, intends to return to Iraq almost immediately. His response to my systematic questioning about the aftermath of the war is that his relatives are all intact, and that in their part of Baghdad, food and water supplies are beginning to function.
He says there is a lot of civil discontent with the US occupation, including demonstrations in which his relatives have participated. He says the sabotage and terrorist acts have little popular support, particularly in his Shiite community. He is hoping for a return to normalcy, but things will change dramatically if the US doesn’t cede sovereignty back to the Iraqi people quickly. In sum, he says, the Shiite community is cautious, and he expresses the greatest hostility to any idea of restoring the Baathist regime.
Based on the evidence of my Shiite refugee friends and the other Iraqis I know, mainly associated with the WCP, it seems clear to me that any romanticised vision of a current defensible military national resistance is a fantasy in the minds of excited anti-imperialists outside Iraq.
The overwhelming majority of the employees of the United Nations in Baghdad are civilians in any meaningful sense of the word, Jose P’s tortuous pseudo-legalism notwithstanding. Many Iraqis are deeply hostile to the UN because of the role it played in enforcing the sanctions, but the dismal paradox is that the UN structure is also the vehicle for a lot of the material provisions that keep many Iraqis alive, and, outside the bloodthirsty universe of the Thunderer, Mark Lause and others, such functions as Polly Brennan’s on landmines, are beneficial. These contradictions in the UN can’t be avoided in real life.
Jose P’s dodgy legalism is an elaborate attempt to evade the general implications of the broad Marxist and Trotskyist tradition on individual terror and attacks on civilians.
Tom O’Lincoln initially tried to evade this problem in a slightly different way, referring without attribution to Trotsky’s famous assertion about the different moral significance of the terrorism of the oppressed and the terrorism of oppressors. This was in Trotsky’s comment on the young Jew Grynzspan’s assasination of the German ambassador to Paris, who, it later emerged, he was personally acquainted with, after Grynzspan’s Polish Jewish parents had perished in the Polish Corridor when they were pushed into the area in the middle of winter with thousands of other Polish Jews expelled from Germany. Trotsky carefully asserted that he opposed this act of individual terror but went on to make the moral distinction. One aspect of this moral distinction made by Trotsky must be the question of degree.
As Trotsky said, despite the general opposition of Marxists to acts of individual terrorism, nevertheless the individual assassination of a particular hated imperialist figure like the Nazi Heydrich or the German ambassador to Paris, or even Lord Mountbatten, are in a different moral category to the violence of their oppressors. If, however, you kill or injure a large number of civilians along with them, including particularly the Polly Brennans of this world, the sheer scale of the act makes Trotsky’s distinction inappropriate.
In addition to this, in all revolutionary guerilla wars led by any kind of conscious political movement of the people, the more conscious leaders of such guerilla struggles have always taken great care to minimise damage and danger to civilians. A study of the Irish Republicans in 1916, Che Guevara and Castro during the Cuban Revolutionary War or the Chinese Eighth Route Army, all underline the importance of these considerations to serious revolutionaries leading genuine people’s movements.
The obvious reason for the great care exercised by real people’s revolutionary leaders of guerilla wars about killing civilians is that successful people’s revolutionary war requires a great deal of popular support, and indeed self-sacrifice by the people. Indiscriminate terror is usually both morally repugnant to real revolutionaries, and counterproductive to their political aims. The behaviour of the rebel forces towards civilians is a pretty good test of whether an upheaval is a genuine people’s war. There can be primeval explosions of popular anger that violate these rules, but they rarely succeed, particularly in the long term.
It’s only necessary to describe these things to illustrate how different to such traditions was the indiscriminate assassination of 20 or 30 civilian workers in the UN compound. It’s also absurd to classify the destruction of water and electricity infrastructure supplying the civilians of Baghdad as acts of people’s war. What they do illustrate is the political isolation of the Baathist Werewolves who have committed these acts.
It’s the weirdest bourgeois legalism to try to dress up these actions as legitimate aspects of people’s war.
A number of other questions arise from Jose the Thunderer’s anathema directed at my grizzled head.
His analysis of the UN is simple-minded and unusable from a Marxist point of view. While it’s a simple truth that that the UN is, in general, an instrument of imperialism, its nature and character is still a good deal more complex and contradictory than this “simple” truth, even in Iraq, where the UN is deeply unpopular because of 10 years of ruthless sanctions against the Iraqi masses.
The UN is also the arena of conflict between a number of competing imperialisms, and to complicate things even further, as just about every country of the world is a member of the UN, many of the countries that are victims of imperialism, including the most consciously anti-imperialist countries like Cuba and Vietnam, are quite deliberately members of this international body and try to assert their interests within it.
From time to time the interests of the countries oppressed by imperialism are expressed within the forum of the UN, and from time to time major imperialist powers squeal their heads off because the UN, in their view, has ganged up against the great powers. Witness, for instance, the repeated, if rather platonic condemnation of the aggression of Israel against the Palestinians, which so enrages bourgeois politicians in countries like Australia and the US. The contradictions within the UN were most sharply expressed in the protracted inability of the Bush-Blair-Howard cabal to get a Security Council or General Assembly majority to legalise their military piracy against Iraq.
The Cuban revolutionary regime, to which Jose P usually looks for inspiration and political leadership, is very active in the UN, and incidentally in this particular instance, sent a message of condolence to the UN over the bombing and the death of the UN personnel, which is an implicit condemnation of the bombing. Does this entitle the Cubans to their fair share of Thunderer Jose’s anathemas?
Other considerations arise that are fundamental to Marxists. The whole thrust of Jose P’s argument that what exists in Iraq is a people’s war like Vietnam has to be examined carefully and critically. Most observers report a number of contradictory things happening in Iraq since the collapse of the Baathist regime.
First of all, the Kurds have extended their military and civil control to include Kirkuk and the oilfields surrounding that city, and they have asserted themselves also in Mosul. I defend the struggle of the Kurds for autonomy and independence in their national areas, despite their military alliance with the US. The Kurdish question is one of the sharp and difficult contradictions facing serious Marxists in this situation.
Most observers say the Shiite majority wants the US out of Iraq, but they are not mainly engaged in military resistance to the US occupation. They are organising massive demonstrations of a more or less peaceful character against the occupiers. It’s quite clear that the overwhelming majority of the Shiites hate the Baathists and don’t want a restoration of this bloodthirsty, tyrannical, anti-working-class regime. The violent actions against the occupiers are largely taking place in Sunni areas and are ascribed by most observers to remnants of the Baathist regime.
Some of these actions, like the dynamiting of water supplies to villages and cities, and the bombing of the UN complex, are barbarism that don’t fit into any reasonable model of people’s war. These occasional violent acts by Baathist remnants are likely to be eventually stamped out by the imperialist military machine, given the hostility to the late regime of the majority of the population who were oppressed by it and did not benefit from it. The Baathist remnants are obviously trying to make the emergence of any social force other than themselves impossible, but the tactics they are using, like the destruction of electricity pylons, are likely to enrage the population against them.
It isn’t excluded, of course, that after a period of peaceful agitation by the Iraqi masses for the withdrawal of the US occupation, military acts against the occupiers will erupt on a mass scale, not primarily initiated by either Baathist remnants or Islamic fundamentalists, but that stage of development has not been reached.
Like Jose P, I’ve been intensely involved in the campaign against the Iraq war. Along with a number of others, including most of the far left and the DSP, I have campaigned strenuously to have the focus on the withdrawal of imperialist troops, including Australian troops, from Iraq.
Generally speaking, the far left has correctly formulated demands in Australia in a similar way to the demands of Answer in the US. We have continued to defend such demands in the face of developing pressure from more conservative forces in the antiwar movement to swing over to acceptance of the Bremer quisling authority in Iraq, or to some formula about the UN. I have vigorously resisted such a shift to the right in the antiwar movement, but at this point we are a distinct minority in this stance. Jose P’s r-r-r-revolutionary defence of the terrorist bombing of the UN compound, as well as being quite wrong in principle, is of no assistance to us at all in resisting this pressure to shift to the right.
This week’s Green Left Weekly has a thoughtful and intelligent article by Doug Lorimer quite properly pointing to the way the UN has been used by US imperialism over the 10 years of the blockade against Iraq to explain the possible context of the bombing of the UN compound. Mistakenly, in my view, however, Lorimer fails to expressly condemn the bombing and implies, in a similar way to Jose P, that it was the work of what Lorimer inaccurately, in this context, dubs the “Iraqi resistance”.
Within about 24 hours, some of the more conservative figures in the Melbourne antiwar movement seized on Lorimer’s article to launch a general diatribe against the DSP on Melbourne Indymedia and on the Broad Left List, obviously to strengthen the climate in the antiwar movement for a shift to the right.
Surely considerations like this also enter into the complex manoeuvres and battles to get a united action against the Iraq war in the US in October.
Even more importantly than this, surely major consideration should be given to the views and possibilities and perspectives of secular socialist forces inside Iraq, and in other Islamic countries, particularly in the Middle East.
I am not aware of any secular socialist groups in Islamic countries, particularly in Iraq, that share the romanticised view held by some western leftists of either the Baathist regime in Iraq or of Islamic fundamentalist political parties and forces. All the socialist groups I know of, in Iraq, Turkey, Kurdistan, Iran, Pakistan, etc, share the deepest animosity to Islamic fundamentalism, both for its medieval backwardness and because of the very simple fact that such groups try to physically exterminate secular leftists. Surely western socialists have a certain obligation of solidarity to their political comrades in Islamic countries.
In Iraq, secular socialist forces are divided between three or four factions that come from the old Iraqi Communist Party. The most conservative Stalinist faction has joined the Bremer quisling authority. This is a major betrayal. The most active of the other groups is the Worker Communist Party, which appears to have illusions in the UN. Nevertheless, it is involved in very vigorous agitation to re-establish trade unions in Iraq, and has for the past three or four weeks been taking a leading role in organising the disbanded, largely conscript, soldiers of the Iraqi Army in their agitation to be properly paid. In the past few days, several of them have been arrested by Bremer’s quisling authority for this agitation, and an international campaign is now proceeding for their release.
There are no communist or socialist groups in Iraq who share Jose P’s characterisation of the Baathist remnants as a national resistance. In my view, the appropriate network of agitations and slogans inside Iraq include:
No doubt, after the collapse of the Baathist regime, many workers, peasants and other oppressed people have grabbed weapons in the chaos. They should hang on to them and they no doubt are doing so (in the tradition of all oppressed peoples, embodied in the old Fenian ballad about the “blunderbuss hidden in the thatch” which my father learnt at his Irish Land League father’s knee.) The more advanced Marxists among them are most likely hanging on to those weapons carefully for possible future use, rather than wasting them at this stage in ill-considered collisions with a much more powerful military opponent in the army of the US occupier.
Everything about the current situation in Iraq suggests to me that Marxists and labour-oriented activists inside Iraq are proceeding in the general spirit of what I have written above, obviously experimenting as they proceed in a complex and contradictory set of circumstances.
Approaching the Iraq question in the above spirit may not have the propaganda appeal of stressing the chaotic nature of the situation after the imperialist conquest. I support making the maximum propaganda use of the problems facing the US, British and Australian imperialist occupiers in Iraq, including the problems presented by the sporadic violence directed against those imperialist occupiers.
Nevertheless, the propaganda points to be made in imperialist countries seem to me to of secondary importance to the real problems facing Marxists, socialists and revolutionaries inside Iraq, in their righteous struggle to re-establish an effective labour movement in their country. Common cause with military adventures by Baathist remnants or Islamic fundamentalists is in obvious conflict with the more mundane necessities dictated by the kind of agitation necessary to re-establish a labour movement and a genuine popular resistance in the country.
Jose the Thunderer’s kneejerk anti-imperialism has a certain appeal to liberals and leftists in imperialist countries, largely stemming from our isolation and our frustration with the military success of the Bush-Howard-Blair imperialist assault, and our failure to defeat it. Nevertheless, this kneejerk anti-imperialism is counter-productive to a serious Marxist approach to building an ongoing effective movement either in Iraq or in imperialist countries.
Iraq sharply poses problems also posed in a number of other situations in the world. The general necessity for Marxists at the moment is to vigorously oppose the world hegemonic rule of US imperialism. Nevertheless US imperialism proceeds by way, in part, of the use of demagogy about democracy and human rights. It is a great mistake for Marxists to oppose this imperialist demagogy by supporting reactionary regimes that are, in fact, totally insupportable from a Marxist point of view.
Four instances come immediately to mind. Despite Bush’s support for it, Marxists must support the overthrow of Mugabe and his replacement by the limited bourgeois democratic MDC in Zimbabwe. Similarly, Marxists must support the overthrow of the long-lived dictatorship of the generals in Myanmar, and this dictatorship’s initial replacement by the bourgeois democratic movement of Aung San Suu Kyi. Marxists must support the movement for democracy in Hong Kong against the Stalinist authorities’ attempt to suppress that movement. Marxists must also support the mass movement of the students in Iran against censorship, medieval social practices and the reactionary rule of the mullahs, despite the fact that Bush also ostensibly supports the movement of the youth and students. These are all situations where the demagogic advocacy by US imperialism of democracy and human rights should not prevent Marxists from supporting democracy and human rights.
Marxmail, September 2, 2003
I deeply and viscerally object to being labelled a scab because of a difference of opinion with the excited Jose P. I object even more to Gary MacLennan labelling me a scab, by mealy mouthed inference, when he says, in a fulsome way, what a wonderful post Jose’s was.
At least the vituperative Jose said it up front. He didn’t shelter behind someone else, like MacLennan. It’s important to try to understand why a relatively seasoned political animal like Jose should fling around rhetoric about scabs in one post, and then break it down slightly in his next post.
It’s obviously a linguistic device to intimidate anyone who dares to disagree with his construct, by asserting that anyone who doesn’t accept his wisdom is a scab. That’s a poisonous form of debate, right out of the repertoire of Stalinism.
It also says something about the underlying political attitudes of the bloke using the abuse. I note that, given the gravity of the issues discussed, Louis is not enforcing his rules too rigidly, so I hope he will give me the same indulgence as Jose in my response.
Jose and his co-thinker, M. Junaid Alam, are not too concerned with pedestrian matters of geography or individual identity. Jose treats yesterday morning’s post by my mate Ed Lewis, in which Ed clearly indicates disagreement with me on some questions, as if we are the same person.
Alam seems to think that the Workers Communist Party (of Iraq) I’m quoting is somewhere in New Zealand. Alam says: “For all his talk of ‘social reality’, Ozleft has only a couple (of) barbers and a tiny Communist sect out in the island of New Zealand to console him.”
All the participants in this argument, on both sides, including me, present evidence drawn from whatever sources are available to attempt to give an appraisal of the forces at work in Iraq. Alam selects sources to strengthen his argument, but objects to some of my sources, particularly Shiite barbers.
This morning, Louis presents as major evidence one journalist’s account of an interview with one anonymous student, and we are presumably meant to be impressed by that. I insist that an accurate picture can only be formed by going to all the sources available, and my examples were presented in that spirit, to correct the one-sided picture presented by the barrage of ostensible evidence posted on Marxmail and other places, which in fact consists mainly of journalists’ reports that suit the poster’s arguments.
This kind of procedure by the Jose camp is the mirror image of the posture adopted by one Stalinist pro-imperialist group in Australia which only places on its website material praising the imperialist occupation of Iraq.
An accurate picture is acquired by as substantial an overview of all the sources available that one can get access to. In my view, the recent International Crisis Group report on Iraq is as distilled an overview of the actual situation, drawn from all the sources, that we are likely to get at this point, and my judgments on the actual situation are largely formed by this report, rather than solely by the excited journalism so attractive to Jose and others.
I reject Jose’s proposition that what is taking place in Iraq mainly represents the activities of some comprehensive movement that he calls the Iraqi Resistance. I submit that the evidence suggests that Jose and others are taking a number of contradictory elements and forces, and cobbling them together.
I submit that several of the actions that he characterises as actions of the Iraqi resistance are actions of individual terrorism that as, Lueko Williams put it quite well yesterday morning, are counterproductive to the construction of a broad-based Iraqi resistance, and counterproductive to the mobilisation and consciousness of the Iraqi working class.
I go further than Williams, however, and assert that the nature of these actions suggests they may well be the actions of counter-revolutionary forces like the remnants of Baathist intelligence or Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups.
I put in this category the bombing of the water supply and electricity pylons to Baghdad, and the indiscriminate bombing of the UN compound, which killed mainly civilians, including Iraqi civilians. I also put in this category yesterday’s bombing of the Shiite holy places in Najaf.
I assert that the bombing into the hereafter of a major leader of Shiism, an imam who had been collaborating with the imperialist occupation forces, along with 100 or so of his congregation, the pleasant street leading to the holy place, and the main Shiite holy place itself, is a counter-revolutionary act of the most vicious sort, which, while it might contribute to making Iraq ungovernable by the imperialist occupying authority, also cements the hold of more conservative forces on the Shiite community.
This stupid act is providing the clearest and most palpable impulse towards the breakout of blind communal conflict between the Shiite majority community and the other communities in Iraq.
I ask Jose and his supporters whether he considers this particular bombing as a legitimate act of the “Iraqi Resistance” and whether I am a scab for expressing opposition to it. I further assert that it’s a dishonest debater’s trick to lump together my opposition to those acts with my clearly stated point of view that other acts of direct, clearly military, conflict with the American occupiers were in a different category.
I expressed the point of view that, while such actions were understandable, and not morally objectionable, that I shared the view of what I believe is the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, that such actions are at this stage probably strategically unwise, although I was deliberately not dogmatic about that.
Any rational, materialist consideration of the demographics of Iraq clearly underlines my point. Iraq has a population of 26 million. Between 15 million and 15.5 million of them are Shiites. Between 4.5 million and 5 million of them are Kurds. Between 4.5 and 5 million of them are Sunnis. About 0.5 million of them are Turcomans, and about 1 million of them are Assyrian Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant, Mandeans, Yazidis and other non-Muslims.
All observers agree that the Kurds are, broadly speaking, in a military alliance of convenience with the imperialist occupying force, and the non-Muslim million are by and large collaborating with the imperialist occupiers, as are the Turcomans, who look to Turkey for support.
The Shiite 60 per cent majority, the 15 million, were, until yesterday, by and large taking a wait-and-see position towards the occupying authority while trying to assert their own independent community interests vis a vis the occupiers in a non-military way.
The military conflicts with the occupiers, including the terrorist acts, which are not supportable from the point of view of Marxism, are largely taking place either in Sunni areas or, like the terrorist act at Najaf, being directed provocatively at the Shiite majority, certainly not by Shiites, who would be reluctant to violate the holiest of Shiite holy places.
My above potted political demographic is further illuminated by political developments in the past couple of days. Jose’s artificial Western orientalist construct of a unified Iraqi resistance, including Baathist remnants and their terrorist acts, is a dangerous mystification, and it is not scabbing, as Jose calls it in his deliberately insulting way, to point out these obvious facts.
A youngish member of the DSP, Stuart Munckton, has attacked me for bourgeois moralism in asserting that the bombing of civilians in the UN compound was uncivilised.
He waves around Trotsky’s excellent book Their Morals and Ours as some kind of justification for supporting Jose’s view that the UN compound is a legitimate military target and the killing of civilians an irrelevance.
Well, as the God-botherers often say, the Devil can quote scripture for his own purpose. Munckton’s use of Trotsky’s profound little book, to which he only really refers in passing, is a piece of the utmost demagogy, and his further comments that he doesn’t yet really know whether or not the UN bombing was justified as there’s not enough information yet, indicates that the reason for this demagogy is to divert attention away from the more or less obvious fact that the DSP leadership is paralysed by an internal argument over the question, and had not yet come to a decisive conclusion.
This impression that I have, that the DSP leadership is still arguing internally over these matters, is confirmed by the fact that Peter Boyle, who earlier posted the International Crisis Group report on Green Left and Marxmail, obviously for a political purpose, made a post on Green Left from home last night, after what must have been a very gruelling all-day regular Monday meeting of the rather top-heavy 10 or 15 full-timers (out of the DSP membership of 80 in Sydney and 300 nationally).
Boyle’s post attempted to direct the discussion on to matters other than whether the Najaf bombing should be condemned, which would have been one of the main political questions at yesterday’s meeting.
Munckton’s use of Their Morals and Ours is the utmost demagogy because it is a complete distortion of the thrust of Trotsky’s approach to questions of morality. When I mentioned Trotsky initially, in one of my posts, it wasn ‘t specifically in relation to the pamphlet Their Morals and Ours but to another statement, For Grynzspan, and Munckton seems to confuse the two documents.
Nevertheless, Their Morals and Ours is very relevant to this discussion. Surely the most relevant aspect of Trotsky’s powerful pamphlet is its general conclusion, the heading of which is, “Dialectic Interdependence of End and Means”.
As Stuart Munckton talks about everything except Trotsky’s conclusion, which may even suggest that he didn’t make it as far as the conclusion, it seems worthwhile to me to read Trotsky’s conclusion into the record from Einde O’Callaghan and David Walter’s excellent and useful Marxist Internet Archive.
at the end of this article. Munckton attacks me because I did not “support the right of the Iraqi people to resist by any means necessary the occupation or we don’t”.
Earlier in his piece, he ridicules my proposition that: “It’s almost a rule of thumb in evaluating whether an upheaval is a genuine people’s war or not, that one of the primary tests is the behaviour of the rebel force towards civilians.”
Well, this is, indeed, one of the nubs of the question. I base my rejection of the Najaf bombing, the UN bombing, and the destruction of the water and electricity supplies to Baghdad, on the proposition that those acts have a profoundly negative affect on the struggle, and in that sense, they are immoral by the yardstick of proletarian morality, in which means and ends are inter-related.
Munckton, like Jose, reduces the question crudely to a proposition that in the war situation, that they claim to exist, more or less any means are acceptable. That is not Trotsky’s position at all, with his concluding stress on the “dialectic interdependence of end and means”.
My approach is clearly true to the spirit of Trotsky’s analysis, particularly to his extended conclusion. The conclusion to Their Morals and Ours is a powerful investigation of the dialectical interdependence of end and means, and includes a condemnation in general of individual terrorism as unacceptable from the point of view of proletarian morality, which takes into account both means and ends.
Munckton’s philistine reduction of the question to the intentions of the bombers alone, about which we are both clearly speculating, is a stupid affront to the spirit of Trotsky’s analysis in Their Morals and Ours, and in particular to his broad conclusions. Any objective reading of Their Morals and Ours, written in 1938 as a guide to approaching questions of proletarian morality, inevitably indicates a general condemnation, in most circumstances, of individual terror directed at civilians.
It’s instructive to note the speculative example that Trotsky gives of the possible bombing of Franco and his staff into kingdom come, as a morally defensible act. Trotsky quite deliberately does not complicate the argument by mentioning an actual event that all Communists and socialists concluded was an enormous political mistake. In 1923, during a vicious repression against the Communists in Bulgaria by the Bulgarian state, the Bulgarian Communists organised a very effective bombing from the basement of the national cathedral in Sophia, which blew to bits the Tsar of Bulgaria, his staff and generals, the higher clergy and several hundred civilians.
This bombing was a very successful act militarily, as were the bombings of the UN compound and the Shiite holy places in Najaf.
It was an absolute disaster politically. It led to the most brutal wholesale repression of both the Communist movement and the radical peasant movement in Bulgaria, including the summary execution of many Communists and radical peasants.
The bombing of the Sofia cathedral was subsequently condemned both by the Comintern and the Bulgarian Communist Party as a very considerable political error and crime. The example of the Sofia cathedral bombing was clearly in the back of Trotsky’s mind when he confined his example of a morally defensible act in time of war very narrowly to the bombing of a fascist general and his staff.
If Munckton or Jose were to front up to a Colombian revolutionary or a current leader of the IRA, perhaps, and ask the IRA leader why they didn’t blow up the British House of Commons or maybe Westminster Abbey with the Queen and the British State in it, or blow up the water supply or electricity to Belfast, they probably wouldn’t give you a careful analysis drawn from Comrade Trotsky about proletarian morality, although some might. Serious revolutionaries are often these days pretty educated in Marxist theory.
They would very probably advance simple propositions about how such actions would be politically counter-productive because they would enrage the British and Irish masses against the revolutionary movement.
They would thereby be expressing, in simple, practical form, one aspect of the underlying spirit of Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours. (They would also probably immediately get the hell out of your company because they would not unreasonably be pretty suspicious of anybody even raising such propositions.)
It’s very useful that Munckton has raised Their Morals and Ours. It’s easily accessible on the web, thanks to the wonderful Marxist Internet Archive, and any Marxist worth two bob, who is interested in these questions, ought to study it very carefully before they lightly go off at the mouth in defence of individual terror tactics that are completely indefensible from a Marxist point of view.
Jose’s last major piece attacking me on Marxmail is eccentric in the extreme. He bursts into song, with a few stanzas from Harlan County to deliberately insult me.
His final section, his approving quote from Malcolm X about the Kennedy assassination, is really bizarre. He says: “The whole history of white, European colonialism and modern imperialism is filled with monstrous, genocidal atrocities. For someone to show up now, in 2003, going tsk, tsk the Iraqi resistance isn’t fighting by gentlemen’s rules, is scabbing. As Malcolm X said after the Kennedy assassination: ‘President Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon . Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad’.”
Putting aside, for the moment, the accusation of scabbing directed at me because of a different estimate of the objective situation in Iraq, it’s worth examining the egregious lunacy involved in quoting Malcolm X in this context.
Malcolm X was a courageous revolutionary leader and was later murdered for his courage. Nevertheless, that statement, which is so appealing to crazed ultralefts, was politically extremely unwise.
It’s worth noting that the Soviet Union, Castro and the Cuban leadership and the American SWP all condemned the Kennedy assassination.
From historical hindsight it seems pretty clear now that Kennedy was assassinated from within the extreme right-wing of American society. To quote approvingly Malcolm X’s unwise remarks with the aim of implying that it is scabbing not to take a similar attitude to acts of individual terror directed at civilians in Iraq, is quite mad and extremely dangerous politically.
A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified, From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man.
“We are to understand then that in achieving this end anything is permissible?” sarcastically demands the Philistine, demonstrating that he understood nothing. That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind. Since this end can be achieved only through revolution, the liberating morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed with a revolutionary character. It irreconcilably counteracts not only religious dogma but every kind of idealistic fetish, these philosophic gendarmes of the ruling class. It deduces a rule for conduct from the laws of the development of society, thus primarily from the class struggle, this law of all laws.
“Just the same,” the moralist continues to insist, “does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?” Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the “leaders”. Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers, that is, those characteristics in which petty bourgeois pedants and moralists are thoroughly steeped.
These criteria do not, of course, give a ready answer to the question as to what is permissible and what is not permissible in each separate case. There can be no such automatic answers. Problems of revolutionary morality are fused with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics. The living experience of the movement under the clarification of theory provides the correct answer to these problems.
Dialectic materialism does not know dualism between means and end. The end flows naturally from the historical movement. Organically the means are subordinated to the end. The immediate end becomes the means for a further end. In his play, Franz von Sickingen, Ferdinand Lassalle puts the following words into the mouth of one of the heroes:
... “Show not the goal
Lassalle’s lines are not at all perfect. Still worse is the fact that in practical politics Lassalle himself diverged from the above expressed precept — it is sufficient to recall that he went as far as secret agreements with Bismark! But the dialectic interdependence between means and end is expressed entirely correctly in the above-quoted sentences. Seeds of wheat must be sown in order to yield an ear of wheat.
Is individual terror, for example, permissible or impermissible from the point of view of “pure morals”? In this abstract form the question does not exist at all for us. Conservative Swiss bourgeois even now render official praise to the terrorist William Tell. Our sympathies are fully on the side of Irish, Russian, Polish or Hindu terrorists in their struggle against national and political oppression. The assassinated Kirov, a rude satrap, does not call forth any sympathy. Our relation to the assassin remains neutral only because we know not what motives guided him. If it became known that Nikolayev acted as a conscious avenger for workers’ rights trampled upon by Kirov, our sympathies would be fully on the side of the assassin. However, not the question of subjective motives but that of objective expediency has for us the decisive significance. Are the given means really capable of leading to the goal? In relation to individual terror, both theory and experience bear witness that such is not the case. To the terrorist we say: it is impossible to replace the masses; only in the mass movement can you find expedient expression for your heroism. However, under conditions of civil war, the assination of individual oppressors ceases to be an act of individual terror. If, we shall say, a revolutionist bombed General Franco and his staff into the air, it would hardly evoke moral indignation even from the democratic eunuchs Under the conditions of civil war a similar act would be politically completely expedient. Thus, even in the sharpest question — murder of man by man — moral absolutes prove futile. Moral evaluations, together with those political, flow from the inner needs of struggle.
The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers” leaders, fabricating legends, staging false trials, in a word, doing what the Stalinists do. These means can serve only one end: lengthening the domination of a clique already condemned by history. But they cannot serve to liberate the masses. That is why the Fourth International leads against Stalinism a life and death struggle.
The masses, of course, are not at all impeccable. Idealization of the masses is foreign to us. We have seen them under different conditions, at different stages and in addition in the biggest political shocks. We have observed their strong and weak sides. Their strong side-resoluteness, self-sacrifice, heroism — has always found its clearest expression in times of revolutionary upsurge. During this period the Bolsheviks headed the masses. Afterward a different historical chapter loomed when the weak side of the oppressed came to the forefront: heterogeneity, insufficiency of culture, narrowness of world outlook. The masses tired of the tension, became disillusioned, lost faith in themselves — and cleared the road for the new aristocracy. In this epoch the Bolsheviks (“Trotskyists”) found themselves isolated from the masses. Practically we went through two such big historic cycles: 1897-1905, years of flood tide; 1907-1913 years of the ebb; 1917-1923, a period of upsurge unprecedented in history; finally, a new period of reaction which has not ended even today. In these immense events the “Trotskyists” learned the rhythm of history, that is, the dialectics of the class struggle. They also learned, it seems, and to a certain degree successfully, how to subordinate their subjective plans and programs to this objective rhythm. They learned not to fall into despair over the fact that the laws of history do not depend upon their individual tastes and are not subordinated to their own moral criteria. they learned to subordinate their indivdual desires to the laws of history. they learnd not to become firghtened by the most power enemies if their power is in contradiction to the needs of historical development. They know how to swim against the stream in the deep convition that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore. Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. but to particiape in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will — only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!
See also Iraq under occupation, a debate, part II