AWL: Apologists without logic

Arthur Bough examines the AWL’s failure to oppose imperialist intervention

Last month, Tony Blair defended his and Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq, that has led to the current chaos in the country, and the possibility that a large part of it, along with a large part of Syria, will be taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Blair claimed that the current chaos in Iraq would have happened anyway, because Iraq would have been subject to the same forces that led to the Arab spring. His remarks have led many commentators to wonder whether he has gone mad, because they are so far removed from the real world. Most recognise that they are really just a pathetic attempt to justify a disastrous policy, that has been proven to be so by history.

But Blair is not alone in having supported a disastrous policy over Iraq, or in trying now to justify it by an apologism that demonstrates its advocates are without logic - or at least that they have to zig and zag so much to justify their mistakes that, like Blair, their statements leave them looking to be either mad or simply totally divorced from reality. Such are the recent comments from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

In an article published on June 17, Martin Thomas writes:

For us in Workers’ Liberty, the horrible events confirm the arguments we made during the previous simmering sectarian civil war in Iraq (especially 2006-07) for slogans of support for the Iraqi labour movement and democracy against both the US forces and the sectarian militias, not the negative slogan, ‘Troops out’. The two-word recipe, ‘Troops out’, then certainly entailed a sectarian collapse like this one - only worse.1

But, of course, the AWL did not take a position of equal opposition to both US forces and sectarian militias. First of all, it did not call for a defeat of the US forces by the working class, but rather saw those US forces as the saviours of the Iraqi workers. Martin Thomas, at the time, even wrote articles about the Iraqi workers being provided with safe zones, and breathing space, within the green zone. Secondly, the AWL did not even take an even-handed approach to the sectarian militias themselves. The AWL effectively sided with the Shia militias, more or less presenting the Sunni militias as being the only “insurgency”, despite the fact that it was clear that the Shia militias were playing a clever game of allying with the US against the Sunnis, whilst taking weapons and support from Iran to launch attacks on the US and Britain in majority Shia areas. In the same way, today Maliki’s sectarian Shia regime, having alienated every other sect in the country, is now requesting the US bail it out again, by bombing Sunni areas under the control of Isis.

The AWL bigged up Shia politicians, like ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, describing him at the time as some kind of constitutionalist. This is the same Sistani who at the time was calling for gays and lesbians to be murdered on the streets, and who today is rallying the Shia for a sectarian civil war against Sunnis.


This mealy-mouthed approach - of claiming to be opposed to both sides, whilst, in practice, being obviously on one side - is typical of the AWL. When the USSR was collapsing, the AWL sided with imperialism’s representative in Russia, Boris Yeltsin, rather than with the Russian workers opposing imperialism. In the Balkans, the AWL supported imperialism and the Kosova Liberation Army against Slobodan Milošević, rather than supporting the workers against both. In Iraq, the AWL supported the US and its Shia allies, rather than promoting the Iraqi working class as the agent of change. Although. the AWL talk about supporting the Iraqi workers, that support was reduced to a tepid economism, as was the programme of action it proposed for the Iraqi workers.

In Libya, the AWL supported imperialism, the feudal Gulf states (who it ridiculously claimed were the agents for bringing bourgeois democracy to the region!) and the jihadists against Gaddafi. In terms which were almost identical to the apologism for political Islam used by the Socialist Workers Party to defend the SWP’s uncritical support for Hezbollah, the AWL claimed that it was inevitable that the opposition to Gaddafi, after years of repression, would take the form of jihadism. In Syria, it supported the same forces against Assad.

In Ukraine, it is openly siding with imperialism’s chosen few, and minimising the role of the Ukrainian fascists. It has said little about the billions of dollars and direct intervention by the US in the Ukraine, which the US itself has openly admitted, whilst uncritically accepting US allegations about Russian intervention. Meanwhile the regime is carrying out the same kind of murderous attacks on the people of eastern Ukraine that the AWL would usually condemn. On other occasions it would refuse to oppose intervention by outside forces against such atrocities, but it has attacked Russia for an armed intervention that it has not even made. That is not to say that Russia has not been intervening in Ukraine, but its intervention has been no different than that made by the US.

Of course, what the AWL means is that it would not oppose intervention by the forces of US imperialism in such cases. Failing to oppose intervention by Russian or other forces is for the AWL quite a different matter, despite its claim to impartiality. For example, when Russia intervened in South Ossetia to stop the genocidal attacks of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, only a week later did the AWL manage to put together a form of words to try to reconcile its opposition to Russian intervention with its studied refusal to oppose US intervention in similar cases elsewhere.

In each case, the consequences of the AWL’s position has been disastrous for the workers of the particular country. In the USSR, the kleptocratic regime of Yeltsin followed the example of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, in selling off state assets on the cheap to its cronies, and created a gangster regime which was if anything worse than that under the Stalinists. At the same time, the economic policies pursued by Yeltsin, under guidance from imperialism, cratered the economy, and left many Russians feeding themselves from rubbish bins.

In Kosova, the ethnic conflict between Albanian and Serb Kosovans, that was stoked by the KLA, itself backed by the CIA, has been replaced by ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Albanians under the protection of US and EU imperialism.

We now have the likelihood of Iraq breaking into three. We have the working class marginalised, as a sectarian civil war develops, and we have the possibility of 12th century medievalists having control over a sizeable portion of the Middle East, with access to some of the latest weapons, provided to them by imperialism, and their allies in the Gulf states, as well as access to hundreds of millions of dollars obtained from Iraqi banks, with which to finance jihadist attacks across the globe, and to finance large-scale recruitment campaigns.

In Libya, imperialist bombing virtually levelled the country, not to mention the devastation to come in future decades as a result of the use of depleted uranium munitions. The intervention of imperialist special forces on the ground eventually destroyed the regime, only, as in Iraq, to then leave the door wide open for the only truly organised forces in the country to take over - the jihadists.

In Syria, the country has been reduced almost to rubble even without the imperialist bombing that took place in Libya, as a result of the large-scale arming of jihadist forces by the CIA, by the Gulf states, and by the historic power house behind Islamic reaction in the area, Turkey. Only as the US itself seemed to realise the danger it had created, as political Islam began to take over regime after regime in Egypt, Tunisia, etc, and as the jihadists took heart from this to spread out into Mali and other neighbouring states, to begin to threaten the regime in Jordan, etc with the inevitability that ultimately Israel would be in the firing line, did the AWL change its stance of uncritical support for the “rebels” in Syria.

This is very similar to the mistakes that the left made in 1979 in relation to the Iranian revolution. In a desperate desire to be on the side of a revolution, the left forgot the basic Marxist requirement of analysing the nature of the social forces involved and of analysing the material conditions under which the revolution was taking place in order to determine the likely outcome. The reality is that in societies that have such powerful vertical cleavages that cut across class lines, and where there exist ideological organisations with powerful messages around which to organise their masses, with well organised cadres able to act in a disciplined manner, the kinds of result that have been seen are virtually inevitable. Indeed, that is why Bonapartist regimes were established in these countries.

Which agency?

That brings us to another aspect of the lack of logic in the AWL’s position. It argues that it was right not to call for troops out of Iraq, because the current sectarian conflict was an inevitable result. We will leave aside the fact that, on this basis, Britain should still be in India, because the previous 200-year rule had not been sufficient for colonialism to have established a stable regime! But the other point here is that, using this argument, it was wrong to call for the removal of Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria or Mubarak in Egypt, or indeed Saddam in Iraq, and so on, because the removal of these strong men is what really opened the door to sectarian civil war! If the AWL policy is based on not calling for actions that will have consequences contrary to those you desire, in most places around the world it should not be calling for the removal of the Bonapartist and militarist regimes that keep a lid on this kind of sectarian conflict.

The point is not whether socialists should call for the removal of dictators, or colonial rulers, or imperialist military forces, but to whom they direct their call to bring about such removal. In all cases, Marxists direct that call to the working class, both in the particular country or region and the entire globe. But the AWL, like its fellow third-campists of the SWP, is unable to do that, because it has lost faith in the ability of the working class to act as the major agent of historical change. Both groups look to other larger forces - various “anti-imperialist” forces in the case of the SWP; “democratic imperialism” and the capitalist state for the AWL.

The reality is, of course, that the US did not leave Iraq because the SWP, orthe Stop the War Coalition, demanded it do so. If the SWP, and the working class in Britain or the US, really did have the power to bring that about, then it would have been absolutely correct to have demanded ‘Troops out’, because such a seismic defeat of imperialism by the British and US working class would have far outweighed the undoubtedly unfortunate consequences for Iraq that flowed from it. As Lenin put it, the interests of one small fraction of the global working class can never be placed higher than the interests of the working class as a whole. But if the British and US workers were so powerful that they could have brought about such a defeat of imperialism and forced a retreat, the issue of troops out of Iraq would have been reduced to a minor matter. Rather, what would have been the order of the day would have been the survival of capitalism in the US and Britain itself.

But this again reflects how far sects like the AWL are from reality. Any sane person, looking at the ranting of an organisation of less than a hundred people about how this or that demand might affect world events in the way the AWL proposes in relation to ‘Troops out’, really would have to question their sanity. They engage in such discussion as though they were part of the organisations that in the first 40 years of the 20th century were able to mobilise millions of workers behind them, and thereby really could affect world events. Whether it is because the members of these organisations are suffering from some kind of Napoleon complex, having been large fish in very tiny ponds for so long that they continually suffer from such gross delusions of grandeur, or whether it is just part and parcel of the fantasy they have to maintain, in order to retain their student recruits for a while longer, is hard to say.

In truth, I have some sympathy with the idea that, under the conditions in Iraq, the demand for ‘Troops out’ might not have been the top of my list - just as, given the reality under Saddam, the demand for ‘Saddam out’ would not have been a top priority either. After all, all Marxists want a socialist revolution, but it would be senseless to make its advocacy the first part of your propaganda at all times. Lenin only raised the demand for “all power to the soviets” when he believed the time was right to do so, and Trotsky sets out why it is not right to continually demand the setting up of workers’ councils. A shop steward who day after day called on their members to strike, no matter what the situation, would be a bad leader, and likely to lead them to disaster. That is not the same, however, as that shop steward explaining at every opportunity that the workers had to rely on their own strength, that ultimately the union’s bargaining strength is only as great as the willingness of the members to take action to achieve its demands.

What was wrong with the AWL’s opposition to troops out was the argument and the politics behind that opposition. It was an opposition based on the idea that the occupation was a lesser evil than the jihadists; it was an opposition based on the AWL’s repeated refusal to oppose the intervention of imperialism, if not tacit support for it. It reflects the AWL’s lack of faith in the historic agency of the working class, which is also reflected in its economistic programme in Britain and its repeated nationalistic and reformist demands for the capitalist state to act on its behalf through measures such as nationalisation, rather than calling for the self-activity of the workers themselves.

The same is true in Iraq. The first priority of socialists in Iraq was to build the strength of the Iraqi workers, and that means not subordinating their interests to some limited bourgeois democratic interests. As Lenin put it, our goal is not the self-determination of peoples, but the self-determination of the working class. If the former contradicts the latter, we act to achieve the latter. That cannot be achieved simply by limiting yourself to purely trade unionist, economistic demands. The reality also is that socialists in Iraq should have been explaining to workers why both the US occupation and the sectarian militias, and Saddam and his regime before, were all equally their enemies. It would not be possible to do that if, like the AWL, you were opposing withdrawal of the US troops on the basis that they were protecting the workers from their other enemies. To the extent that Iraqi workers themselves were wanting to kick out the US occupation, it would have been up to socialists to support them in an intelligent way - building their own forces, economically, socially and politically, so as to be able to successfully achieve that goal without risking handing over power to another enemy. The AWL could never do that, because kicking out the occupation was something it opposed, full stop.

Ends and means

In Iraq, the AWL has been able to justify its mealy-mouthed approach because it did oppose the invasion itself. But that opposition has to be put in the context of the AWL’s position in every other situation. Whether it is in Kosova, Libya or Syria, the AWL did not openly call for imperialist intervention, but it made clear that it would not oppose it either. On the contrary, the AWL argued that such intervention, if it defeated the opponents of“democratic imperialism”, would be a good thing. In the case of Iran, it even tried to provide pre-emptive support for a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities! It argued that this was justified because we should not oppose measures that achieve goals we have set for ourselves.

That is completely at odds with the Marxist method. For Marxists, the ends do not justify the means. It is not at all inconsequential for us how history’s tasks are achieved. That is the typical position of the liberal, not the Marxist. When Russian liberals like Alexei Miliukov and Ivan Kirillovich adopted that position in relation to the Balkans, Trotsky opposed them in clear terms:

But it is not at all a matter of indifference by what methods this emancipation is being accomplished. The method of ‘liberation’ that is being followed today means the enslavement of Macedonia to the personal regime in Bulgaria and to Bulgarian militarism; it means, moreover, the strengthening of reaction in Bulgaria itself. That positive, progressive result, which history will, in the last analysis, extract from the ghastly events in the Balkans, will suffer no harm from the exposures made by Balkan and European democracy; on the contrary, only a struggle against the usurpation of history’s tasks by the present masters of the situation will educate the Balkan peoples to play the role of superseding not only Turkish despotism, but also those who, for their own reactionary purposes, are, by their own barbarous methods, now destroying that despotism ...

Our agitation, on the contrary, against the way that history’s problems are at present being solved goes hand in hand with the work of the Balkan Social Democrats. And when we denounce the bloody deeds of the Balkan ‘liberation’ from above we carry forward the struggle not only against liberal deception of the Russian masses, but also against enslavement of the Balkan masses.2

And he writes, against the arguments of those like the AWL that non-opposition to intervention excuses them:

It is necessary to vindicate the possibility for these peoples themselves to settle their own affairs, not only as they wish and see fit, but also by their own strength, in the land where they are established. This means that European democracy [he means here social democracy or the Marxists] has to combat every attempt to subject the fate of the Balkans to the ambitions of the great powers. Whether these ambitions be presented in the naked form of colonial policy or whether they be concealed behind phrases about racial kinship, they all alike menace the independence of the Balkan peoples. The great powers should be allowed to seek places for themselves in the Balkan peninsula in one way only: that of free, commercial rivalry and cultural influence ...

Democracy has no right, political or moral, to entrust the organisation of the Balkan peoples to forces that are outside its control - for it is not known when and where these forces will stop, and democracy, having once granted them the mandate of its political confidence, will be unable to check them.3

And in a fitting description of the aftermath of such intervention, and as an epitaph for the policy of the liberal interventionists and third campists like the AWL, Trotsky describes what such liberation from above results in, in terms that today could describe Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and everywhere else that imperialism has destroyed:

If you don’t see the link between today’s disgrace and yesterday’s ‘glory’, that’s because you imagine that in the Balkans somebody is conducting a policy and answering for its reasonableness. In actual fact, policy is making itself down there, just like an earthquake. It was precisely the first war, the ‘war of liberation’ that reduced to insignificance, to a negligible quantity, all the factors of calculation and political discretion. Blind, unthinking spontaneity came into its own - not the benign spontaneity of awakened mass solidarity, which already has so many good deeds to its credit in history, but malign spontaneity, the resoluteness of which is only the other side of blind despair ….

‘Free’! And to whom, pray, are the Macedonians to pay the costs of their ‘liberation’? And exactly how much do these costs amount to? How easily people operate with words, and now with living concepts, when they are not involved themselves! You, Ivan Kirillovich, say that peace is not an end in itself and so on, but you are letting your vision of reality be obscured. ‘Free’! Have you any idea what the areas that were recently the theatre of war have been turned into? All through those places a terrible tornado has raged, which has torn up, broken, mangled, reduced to ashes everything that man’s labour had created, has maimed and crushed man himself, and mortally laid low the young generation, down to the baby at the breast and even further to the foetus in the mother’s womb. The Turks burned and massacred as they fled. The local Christians, where they had the advantage, burned and slaughtered, as the allied armies drew near. The soldiers finished off the wounded, and ate up or carried off everything they could lay their hands on. The partisans, following at their heels, plundered, violated, burned. And, finally, along with the armies, epidemics of typhus and cholera advanced across the ‘liberated’ land.4.


1. www.workersliberty.org/story/2014/06/17/collapse-iraq.

2. L Trotsky The Balkan wars 1912-13 New York 1980, pp293-94.

3. Ibid pp148-52.

4. Ibid pp327, p330.