Going soft on the intervention
Fear and hatred of Islamic State has caused some members of the Fourth International to lose their bearings, writes Peter Manson
On September 30, two RAF Tornado jets launched attacks on Islamic State positions in Iraq following the vote in the Commons four days earlier to support the US-led action. MPs had decided by 524 votes to 43 in favour of joining military action against Iraq for the third time in 23 years. A couple of dozen Labour lefts and mavericks were joined by six MPs from the Scottish National Party, six Tories, one Liberal Democrat, three from Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, and two from Plaid Cymru, plus Green MP Caroline Lucas and George Galloway of Respect.
So, after several reconnaissance flights over the previous three days, the two jets - acting “in support of the Iraqi government” - hit an IS “heavy weapon position” and an “armed pick-up truck”. Not exactly major strategic targets, but, there again, the UK has only made six warplanes available - one less that Denmark, for instance. However, as we all know, IS poses a deadly threat not only to the peoples of the Middle East, but, according to prime minster David Cameron, to the “streets of Britain”. As archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby put it, imperialist air strikes offer a “vision of hope” - as opposed to IS’s “endless darkness”.
It is, of course, true that IS is a deeply reactionary force, prepared to slaughter by the thousand those who stand in its way. You can hardly blame those Kurds and Yazdis on the receiving end who have been pleading for western air strikes. For them IS is the most immediate, the most dangerous threat. However, that ought not to be the case for communists and revolutionary socialists, for whom, compared to imperialism, IS is like a band of petty criminals.
It is true that, thanks primarily to the dire weakness of the left, millions in the Arab world have turned in desperation to the Islamists and jihadis, of which IS is amongst the most reactionary. However, that does not change the global reality one iota: it is imperialism - most notably US imperialism - that is the greatest enemy of all progressive, democratic and working class forces. It is US imperialism that is primarily responsible for the chaos, the burgeoning of rival reactionary groups, particularly in Iraq, through its own destructive, brutal interventions.
But for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty IS is the main enemy. Unfortunately, however, the fact that the US is “the assistant-from-the-air of the Shia-sectarian Iraqi government in Baghdad, and of corrupt despotisms like Saudi Arabia, mandates no confidence” in the US-led bombing campaign. Nevertheless, “… slogans like ‘Stop the bombing’ are wrong. They put the focus on negative opposition to the US-led coalition rather than positive support for the people at immediate risk from Isis in Iraq and Syria.”1
That, obviously, is par for the course for the despicable social-imperialists of the AWL, who always find an excuse to oppose anti-imperialist slogans. But IS’s sheer, wanton barbarity has led other groups not just to drop their opposition to imperialist intervention, but to give it actual support.
Take the Danish section of the Fourth International, the Socialist Workers Party (SAP). On September 15 an article entitled ‘Why Danish leftists supported military aid to Iraq’ appeared in the FI online magazine, International Viewpoint. The author,Michael Voss, who considers himself a “revolutionary Marxist”, explains why the SAP leadership, including himself, voted to allow the 12 MPs of the Red-Green Alliance to send a Hercules aeroplane to Iraq at the request of the Baghdad government. This plane would be used to transport weapons and ammunition specifically to “the Kurdish militias fighting Islamic State”.2
As I pointed out above, Denmark has agreed to send seven warplanes as part of the imperialist bombing campaign. Obviously the Hercules, being a transport plane, does not count here, and on that basis comrade Voss finds his escape clause. The Hercules “cannot be used for any other purpose than delivering arms to the forces fighting IS”. But, whether the Red-Green Alliance (which brings together ‘official communists’, Maoists and Greens, as well as the FI Trotskyists) likes it or not, it is in reality being used as part of the US-led military intervention.
And that has caused the SAP much soul-searching, with a minority of its leadership opposing the proposition. According to Voss, this minority put forward “many valid arguments”, of which the “most basic” was “the problem of supporting a military action under the command of the US”. After all, “The US government and military defend the interests of US big business and imperialism”. In fact US imperialism is “the basic reason” for the sectarian fighting in the region.
However, he continues, “revolutionary socialists also want to fight and stop IS, a murderous, sectarian and deeply reactionary force. A victory for IS will set back any social, democratic, pro-women or anti-imperialist development that may have taken place in parts of Syria and Iraq”. And this clearly led the SAP majority to regard imperialism as the lesser evil - after IS is defeated, then we can go back to opposing it.
Voss believes that the overwhelming necessity of seeing off Islamic State has led to “a temporary coincidence of interests” between socialists and imperialism. Both “want to supply the Kurds with weapons” to stop IS. So to refuse to support this anti-IS alliance would be “as if Lenin had refused to travel in the sealed train supplied by German imperialism through imperialist Germany to Russia in the middle of the Russian Revolution”!
This ludicrous comparison misses the obvious point. Whereas the kaiser cooperated in facilitating the arrival of the main Bolshevik leader in Petrograd in the hope of weakening tsarist Russia to the short-term advantage of Germany, in the long run it was only working class interests that were served: the Russian Revolution left the bourgeoisie in all the European powers, including Germany, in mortal danger - an outcome that was entirely predictable. By contrast, it is difficult to see how the defeat of IS and other such forces at the hands of imperialism can advance the cause of the working class. While it is improbable, to say the least, that the US will be able to impose a stable, imperialist-friendly regime in full control of Iraq and Syria, the destruction of IS (assuming that is possible) would leave a void likely to be filled by other reactionary forces.
The SAP minority also had other worries. For instance, would “the most progressive Kurdish forces”, such as the Turkish PKK and its Syrian counterpart, the PDU, actually receive the weapons, or would they be used by the “regional Kurdish government”, which is pursuing neoliberal, anti-working class policies? Voss admits that “There is really no telling exactly who will get how big a share of the weapons”, but - not to worry - “the Kurdish forces have established a common military front to fight Isis”, in any case: “There is evidence that they are actually sharing weapons.”
Despite these misgivings, “What tipped the balance between yes and no for many of us was the fact that all the progressive Kurdish forces, including socialists, in the region … not only advised us to vote for, but begged us not to oppose, the decision. They were sure that such a decision will most likely result in weapons for the PKK/PDU - a necessary strengthening not only of the fight against IS, but also a strengthening of the progressive forces in the region.” The imperialists obviously disagree - why on earth would they go for an option that would “most likely” result in “a strengthening of the progressive forces”?
The Danish majority are not the only FI comrades whose fear and hatred of IS (referred to by some as ‘Daesh’) had led them to adopt such a position, it seems. For example, International Viewpoint featured an article from François Sabado, who sits on the FI’s executive bureau and is a member of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France. He agrees with Voss that in the Middle East “the enemy of the peoples is not only western intervention”: there is also Russia, the Gulf states and “the corrupt regimes in the region”. But “today it is above all Daesh” (my emphasis), which Sabado characterises, AWL-style, as “Islamo-fascist”.3
At this point, Sabado seems to be parting company from Voss, for he says: “We denounce the imperialist intervention, because its objective is not to help the peoples, but to defend its own strategic, economic, political and military interests in the region.” He even adds: “… any foreign military intervention can only play into the hands of Daesh, which will present itself as the defender of the Sunni Arabs against the west”. But he then concludes that there should be “no support for a foreign military intervention that cannot be separated from imperialist interests” (my emphasis).
However, this ‘separation from imperialist interests’ is clearly not very pronounced. Sabado asks: “… can we support progressive Syrian and Kurdish sectors who are asking our governments to help them?” Absolutely, we can: “Our criterion is the preservation of human life and the rights of peoples. And in this case there is no hesitation.”
Unlike Voss, comrade Sabado does not seek justification in the alliances entered into by Lenin, but in the words of Trotsky, who wrote in 1938: “In 90 cases out of 100 the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In 10 cases, however, they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie, but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie.”
For Sabado, while it is essential “to remember every time the responsibilities of imperialism, mistrust of its politics, the need for an independent politics of social movements and national liberation movements”, we can nevertheless fix our “own seal” onto imperialist arms shipments. You see, today, when we are “faced with barbarism” from the likes of IS, there are “10 cases out of 100” where we may place “the ‘same sign’ between the workers’ movement, the solidarity movement and those who govern us”.
And it looks like the FI British section, Socialist Resistance, has fallen in behind those excusing imperialist intervention against IS. An article by Sarah Parker, published on October 1 and headlined ‘Solidarity with Kobanê - an urgent task’, focuses on the plight of the Syrian city under threat from IS. It ends with a set of demands that includes: “The UK government must provide the Kurdish forces with advanced weapons.”4
It is not unprincipled per se to make such a demand, but in this case I suspect the imperialists are already supplying “advanced weapons” to “Kurdish forces” as part of their own anti-IS intervention. While it is unlikely that the recipients will be the PKK and PDU, there is a danger that this call could be just a few steps away from advocating a more direct form of imperialist action.
1. Solidarity October 1.