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International Socialism, Spring 1991


Alex Callinicos, Paul Foot, Mike Gonzalez,
Chris Harman, John Molyneux

An open letter to New Left Review


From International Socialism 2 : 50, Spring 1991, pp. 101–103.
Transcribed by Camilla Royle.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We write as socialists who have read NLR regularly for the last 20 years or more. We have reacted to individual articles sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with strong criticism. We may have disagreed with the stance of some articles – especially those which presented the regimes of Russia and China as somehow left wing-but we always felt that the magazine was produced by people who could be relied to be in the trenches alongside us in the battle against Western imperialism. They had, after all, taken an unequivocal stand against the wars waged by France in Algeria, the US in Vietnam, the British in Aden and Oman.

For this reason we have been horrified by your most recent issue (184). As it came out the American government of George Bush was preparing a massive military onslaught in the Gulf – an onslaught which the great mass of the left on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Third World see as a defence of oil interests and an attempt to reassert the US’s global hegemony in a way not possible since the Vietnam defeat.

Yet the major article on the Gulf in New Left Review is by Fred Halliday, a supporter of American military action in the Gulf. Readers in Britain will know that in the autumn of 1990 he repeatedly appeared on radio and television to urge the sending of British and American forces to the Gulf. He told Marxism Today (October 1990): ‘I would not think that at a future juncture, if sanctions fail, that military action to oust Iraq from Kuwait would be unjustified.’

The appearance of an article by such an apologist for the American and British action might be tolerable if it were countered by a powerful polemic opposing imperialism. Unfortonate1y, it was not. Instead, there was a rather mild editorial statement which contained not one word of criticism of Halliday and itself went halfway with the American-British position.

It began by telling us, correctly, that ‘It is the West’s thirst for cheap oil ... which renders it suddenly sensitive to the viciously repressive regime that yesterday it was arming against Iran.’ But it then went on to argue:

The initial UN resolutions against Iraq offered an appropriate and justified response to the occupation of Kuwait-though they would have been better if they had included a clear commitment to democracy in Kuwait. There should also have been UN sanctions against Israel as strong as this, instead of the lavish US aid that has been forthcoming.

This is either naivety or a conscious desire to cover up the acquiescence of some of those around NLR in the plans of US imperialism. Everyone knows the original UN resolutions were drawn up mainly by the US, which used arm twisting and bribery (such as promising to help finance perestroika and to restore to China aid cut off after the Tiananmen Square butchery) to push it through the Security Council. Everyone should also know – if only because Fred Halliday often made the point on British radio – that sanctions could only work if enforced by a military blockade.

The sanctions resolution was, in fact, used by America and Britain to build up the bandwagon for war. And the same security council states which voted for one went along with the other. The task of socialists was to speak out against the whole manoeuvre. Unfortunately, your editorial statement did not.

NLR justified its stance by referring to the fate of Kuwait. But Kuwait only came into existence as a state because of Western oil interests. Only 4 percent of the population ever had a vote, for a parliament which the ruling Sabah family arbitrarily dissolved, and the majority of its population were denied any citizenship rights at all. No wonder Halliday himself, in his better days, subtitled the Kuwaiti section of his book Arabia without Sultans The New Slavery, telling that ‘its internal reliance on a class of imported helots is mirrored by its international role as a steward of capital’.

Now he claims socialists should support military action by the Western powers to restore such a state because the enemy is Iraqi ‘fascism’. But the US sustains dictatorships every bit as bad as the Iraqi one elsewhere in the world – just think of Zaire, Guatemala, El Salvador, Paraguay, Somalia, or, in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Its coalition allies include the Turkish hangmen and the Syrian symmetrical twin of Iraq.

Anyone should be able to see that an American victory would give the Bush team – veterans all of the Contra terror campaign against Nicaragua and the invasions of Grenada and Panama – the confidence to impose such dictatorships elsewhere in the world.

Of course, there should be no question of socialists giving any political support to Saddam Hussein. His Ba’ath party willingly collaborated with the CIA in the 1963 coup against Qassim, tried to ingratiate itself with the US through its attack on Iran in 1980 and, using Western supplied poison gas, collaborated with NATO member Turkey in a murderous campaign against the Kurds.

Socialists should see that a successful struggle against imperialism will require the revolutionary overthrow of such a regime.

But that is not the same as supporting Bush’s coalition, as Halliday does, or even as saying, as your editorial statement does, ‘the left should not support the military ambitions of any of the predators now confronting one another in the desert’. This equates the little bully, Saddam Hussein, with the much greater bully, US imperialism, as if a victory for one would be as bad for the peoples of the world as a victory for the other.

There is more than a whiff of August 1914 in Fred Halliday’s sudden conversion to the belief that an American led coalition should enjoy support from the left. And there is more than a hint of compromise with such views in NLR’s own present position. All those who have campaigned against Western imperialism in the past should insist the main enemy is in Washington, and act accordingly.

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