Bob Gould, 2003

Bring the troops home
and the nature of internet discussion

Source: Marxmail, August 13, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

About four months ago, when I got set up to directly access the web I signed up simultaneously to the Green Left Weekly list in Australia, and to Socialist Register, Marxmail and Leftist Trainspotters.

As a result of this, each morning I start up the computer and there are 100 or so messages. I’ve acquired the knack of quickly glancing at each message and deleting most of them and keeping the ones that interest me. This procedure takes about 15 minutes.

In the past day or so there has been a slightly eccentric verbal custard pie fight on Marxmail and coincident with it an equally eccentric thread on Trainspotters highlighting the internet activities of a one-time cadre of the British Militant group who had a breakdown a few years ago and now writes wild proclamations on his website, which he says are the most important things we’ll ever read.

Judging by my inbox, some of the discussion on Marxmail over the past two or three months hasn’t been too far removed from the man in the psych ward, who accuses all and sundry who’ve crossed his path of being agents of big business, starting with Frederick Engels, and including Lenin and Trotsky.

The Marxmail discussion hasn’t quite reached that point of high theory, but a few people on Marxmail, such as the departed comrade Melvin P, have moments approaching a similar elevated level of conspiracy theory.

I’m reminded that when I first put something on Marxmail making a gentle characterisation of some people as ultraleft, Louis ticked me off gently for being a bit pompous.

It seems that Louis has since decided to let things run a bit and not worry too much about the shafts of abuse thrown around, in the expectation that the abusers will wear themselves out.

Louis is the moderator, I respect his judgment in these matters, and my instinct is anyway that people who overuse abuse tend to make themselves look foolish, as abuse is obviously no satisfactory substitute for argument. I’ve noticed that Louis is currently very loath to unsub even the most abusive people, and I think that’s wise, as they tend to eventually sometimes unsub themselves at moments of high emotion, etc, and anyway the ones who have something useful to contribute mixed in with their frenzy usually come back.

It’s fascinating to me that many who are most abusive are of Stalinist inclination, and that holds true for both Marxmail and Trainspotters. Personally, I have a very thick skin and abuse doesn’t worry me much and I can throw a bit back when necessary, but my basic instinct is that we should try to get back to real political business and put the abuse aside.

We have serious and weighty matters to argue between us and gratuitous abuse mystifies and clouds the issues most of the time. The odd good-humoured dig does no harm, but a rational, serious tone is more useful.

My Australian mates and I have been constructing our own modest website, Ozleft, which is not a discussion site, but more a collection of documents to assist discussion and debate on socialist perspectives, and it has been quite useful to us as a matter of routine, to post pointers and introductions to new documents on Marxmail, Trainspotters and the Green Left site, and when we do that we get a gratifying result, which suggests that there are a lot of rational lurkers on all the sites who use them for information and discussion and keep their heads down when the weird verbal pyrotechnics are in flight.

My basic socialist preoccupations are not quite the same as those of Louis and his closest associates and friends on the list, but that’s not the point. Louis and Les Schaffer labour hard to preserve the list as a sensible platform, even for people like myself who don’t entirely agree with them on some questions.

Of late, I’ve found myself in broad agreement on a number of questions with Jose Perez, with whom I had some disagreements in the past. For instance, I think his careful observations about potentially healthy developments even in a rather cultish group, such as the US SWP, are worth noting, and he has done that several times in a meticulous and useful way.

In the US, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, we all face political circumstances that are not too dissimilar, in that after the extraordinary mobilisation against the imperialist war on Iraq, the relative initial success of the US invasion produced a fairly immediate demobilisation and we are all swimming a bit against the stream in the spectacular letdown from the big mass movement in which we all participated six months ago.

Observing US political circumstances from a distance, it seems to me that despite their political differences, three political organisations have kept their heads: the US ISO, Solidarity and the Workers World Party and ANSWER, and even to some extent, so has the SWP.

In particular the demands put forward by ANSWER in the antiwar movement are sensible and transitional in the difficult conditions of the US, and aren’t at all inconsistent with the demands of the people in opposition groups directed at US military personnel who emphasise bring the troops home now.

It’s a rather hopeful sign, as Jose Perez, has pointed out, that the SWP is beginning to approach the antiwar movement in a similar spirit. If I lived in the US I would be participating as far as possible in the antiwar movement while also advocating a public, serious political discussion between the four groups that I’ve mentioned with the ultimate aim of regroupment including those groups and thousands of socialist independents. A wildly optimistic long shot, you might say, but the kind of thing demanded by the times.

The abusive attacks on Stan Goff and the military opposition to the war are incomprehensible to me, from a socialist point of view. Marxists are not pacifists, armies exist, including imperialist armies, and a big part of the Leninist tradition that I look to includes all sorts of experiments and tactics directed at demobilising, weakening, undermining imperialist war machines.

The point made by the comrade from Germany, that bloodthirsty rhetoric about killing imperialist soldiers is completely counterproductive seems entirely valid to me. Most imperialist armies are workers in uniform, and appeals to them are a big part of the political arsenal of all opponents of imperialist wars.

Bloodthirsty rhetoric is not Marxism or Leninism, or anything useful that I recognise.

A large part of my political activity in the 1960s and 1970s included fighting against the imperialist war in Vietnam, in which Australia was deeply involved as a client state of US imperialism. The main emphasis of the militant heart of the movement, of which I was one of the organisers was “Bring the troops home, get out of Vietnam”. We took over those slogans holus bolus from the US SWP and they proved powerfully effective slogans in Australia.

Our opponents in the antiwar movement here were a variety of Stalinists and right-wing Laborites who opposed the withdrawal slogan in favour of general propositions about peace. The fact that the courageous Labor parliamentary leader Arthur Calwell nailed his flag to the withdrawal mast in 1965 helped give our agitation a mass character.

After some ups and downs, withdrawal of the troops became the dominant demand by the time of the big Moratorium protests. It’s a curious matter of historical fact that a Maoist-Stalinist grouping of the time, led by some colourful figures such as Albert Langer, denounced us as traitors using the same rhetoric as some of the various ultralefts on Marxmail now.

The Maoists counterposed similar rhetoric about victory to the Viet Cong and killing imperialist troops. Some of the main personalities in that group are now vociferous supporters of the US invasion of Iraq and even have their own website,, which gets coverage in the bourgeois press.

Marxist politics isn’t any kind of religion, and the thing about Lenin’s politics and practice that is so useful is its combination of fundamental Marxist principles with concreteness and realism. An emphasis on concrete demands aimed at defeating imperialism, such as end the war, bring the troops home now, is entirely consistent with Lenin’s approach.

Those who use very leftist rhetoric in opposition to these demands now are unlikely to have much concrete experience of struggle to build an effective antiwar movement.

I’ve never been much of a revolutionary tourist. That doesn’t appeal to me, and for many years I’ve had a book business to run anyhow, which tends to tie me down. Despite my deep emotional involvement in the struggle against the Vietnam War — the most useful decade of my adult life — I’ve never been to Vietnam.

However, a number of people I know have, and many have visited the museums of struggle against US imperialism in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and Hanoi. A number of visitors have reported to me the museum in Ho Chi Minh City has a room featuring one picture from each country focussing on that country’s opposition to the war. My friends have broken up laughing at the fact that the picture from Australia is the cover of our magazine Vietnam Action, with a picture of one of our early demonstrations, in 1965, with a much younger version of yours truly marching proudly beside our banner, “Bring the troops home now”.

Despite the rhetoric of assorted ultralefts, the Vietnamese themselves have repeatedly stressed that the antiwar agitation in the US, Australia and other countries made a very big contribution to the ultimate victory of Vietnam in that war.

As I write this, the assorted more leftist and militant groups in the Sydney antiwar movement are involved in a united and rational attempt to beat back an attempt by a curious coalition of more conservative forces with assorted Stalinist relics to split the Sydney antiwar movement and roll back the unity that was achieved during the high point of the movement from November to March.

The more conservative forces are focussing their attack against the demand supported by all the far left and the militants in the movement for withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraq. They counterpose to that rhetorical emphasis on some fanciful scheme to bring the United Nations into Iraq. Surely this highlights the cutting edge represented by the demand for withdrawal of imperialist troops.

I don’t believe that the assorted ultraleft noise-makers on Marxmail attacking the demand to bring the troops home have a clue about how to construct an antiwar movement in the current conditions.

The many-faceted campaign directed at military personnel encouraging them to oppose the war in different ways had a wide and honourable history in both the US and Australia during the Vietnam War. I remember the many antiwar bulletins put out in the US army. I particularly remember Andy Stapp, who I think was associated with the Workers World Party, campaigning in the US army against the war.

Certainly the Vietnam Action Campaign, which I was in, gave out a number of leaflets under my name offering assistance to US servicemen on R&R in Australia if they chose to leave the US army while in Australia.

As a matter of fact, a number of US servicemen did choose to leave the US army while in Australia and got away to join the anti-militarist diaspora in Sweden and Canada. One militant opponent of the war in the US army, Allen Myers, came to Australia to address one of our Vietnam Action Campaign meetings, met up with an Australian woman comrade after the meeting and eventually married her and settled in Australia to conduct a long and interesting leftist political life.

Sensible agitation directed at workers in uniform drawn into military machines, conducted in a calm and rational way, has always been good policy from a Marxist point of view.

It goes without saying that crazy rhetoric about killing soldiers sharply contradicts such a rational orientation towards potential opposition to wars within armies.