AWL 'realists' raise their heads above the parapet

Divisions emerge within the AWL over troop withdrawal

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty has, since the beginning of the occupation of Iraq in 2003, argued against socialists and the workers' movement campaigning for the withdrawal of the occupying troops. It has held to this line in spite of criticism from 'third campists' elsewhere, such as Barry Finger (Solidarity October 6 2005). Now a public debate has begun in Solidarity (December 8 2006), with articles by David Broder, Sacha Ismail, Clive Bradley and Daniel Randall. These respond in different ways to an earlier article by Sean Matgamna (December 6) reiterating the AWL's opposition to 'troops out'.

To quote comrade Sean Matgamna, "Though the Alliance for Workers' Liberty said that the destruction of the Saddam regime was in itself desirable, we opposed the 2003 war. We had no confidence in the ability of the USA to achieve - or in face of likely difficulties, to go on wanting to achieve - their stated objective of a bourgeois democratic Iraq.

"We refused to give political confidence or political credence to the British or US states to carry through progressive change in Iraq. We did not favour the method of war by imperialist states against the Iraqi regional imperialist state as the best way to bring about a revolution in Iraq.

"We hoped, of course, that the result of what the US, Britain, etc were doing would, nevertheless, be the creation of some sort of bourgeois democratic Iraq. We rejoiced in the re-emergence of an Iraqi labour movement in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the fascistic Ba'ath regime.

"We are for self-determination for the peoples of Iraq. But after 2003 we opposed those on the left who thought that the call for a US-British immediate withdrawal was the necessary, and only acceptable, concrete expression of being in favour of Iraqi self-determination. We thought that the chaos that would follow a precipitate withdrawal by those who had smashed the Iraq state would, amongst other terrible things, lead to the annihilation of the new Iraqi labour movement.

"The development of the working class, and its movement, was and remains for us the all-important concern, overriding all else. We refused to raise a political slogan whose main consequence, were it to be acted upon, we emphatically did not want" (www.workersliberty.org/node/7157).

Comrade Matgamna has left out one of the arguments which the AWL used earlier on: that the Iraqi workers' movement was not demanding the withdrawal of troops. In the case of the Iraqi Communist Party/Iraqi Confederation of Trade Unions this was hardly surprising, since until 2005 the ICP was collaborating in the occupiers' puppet government and attempting to use it to establish a state-backed trade union monopoly. The small Worker-communist Party of Iraq called in the early days of the occupation for a phased withdrawal to replace US troops with UN troops drawn from the region. More recently, its broad-front organisation, the Iraqi Freedom Congress, calls unequivocally for the immediate withdrawal of troops, and - simply and correctly - for the arming of the Iraqi workers to resist the attacks of the employers, the occupiers and the islamists (several reports on www.ifcongress.com/English/).

Comrade Matgamna, in contrast, concludes that socialists in Britain should still not call for the withdrawal of troops:

"Unrestrained sunni-shia sectarian war would be worse! The numbers slaughtered in such conflict would be vastly greater than the casualties now in the half-smothered sectarian civil war ...

"... adopting as a slogan, a proposal, 'withdraw immediately', which would, if it were to determine events, make it a certainty, ... translates in real terms into the proposal for Iraq: 'Just let it rip!' The slaughter then would be immensely greater. The new Iraqi labour movement would be destroyed.

"The Iraqi labour movement can still, just about, function in today's Iraq, at least in those areas where the sunni-supremacist 'resistance' are not dominant. That is, where those clerical fascists (who are the 'anti-imperialist' heroes in the anti-working class mythology of our own kitsch left) are not able to destroy the Iraqi labour movement. There still remains a small space for the Iraqi working class to organise in."

In the debate in Solidarity 3/103 David Broder makes the entirely correct point that comrade Matgamna's arguments presuppose that the imperialist troops are in some sense protecting the workers' movement:

"If the occupiers' departure would leave the workers more vulnerable, it follows that one of the characteristics of the occupation must be preventing the annihilation of workers. But in reality, in no way has the presence of foreign forces protected trade union activity. The authorities take no action whatsoever to guard union buildings, decree 8750 has made union activity effectively illegal and they take no steps to save kidnapped labour activists. Islamists are given free rein to attack them across the country. The coalition appears happy to let this happen, as long as they are not attacking US-UK troops. The trade union movement exists semi-illegally, with no help whatsoever from the government - it organises in spite of the civil war going on around it, rather than because of 'democratic space' under the occupation."

Indeed (as the Weekly Worker has argued on several occasions) the occupiers are, in fact, allied with some of the islamists who attack the workers' movement.

Sacha Ismail responds: "Can you deny that the Iraqi left and labour movement basically exist in occupied territory, not territory controlled by the 'resistance'?" He goes on to draw an analogy: "We do not at the moment raise the slogan 'Abolish the police'. We are for the abolition of the police, but the immediate realisation of that slogan would not mean working class power, but anarchy and free run for people who are on balance worse than the bourgeois state."

The short answer to the first point is that there is no "territory controlled by the resistance" other than particular streets and localities; and, insofar as Anbar province in western Iraq is a centre of the 'sunni' guerrillas, it is also the most thinly populated province of Iraq: ie, not a centre of the working class.

As to the second, communists - perhaps unlike the AWL - do call today for the replacement of the police with a workers'/popular militia force. That is by no means the same thing as calling for "the abolition of the police". In Iraq, the occupiers abolished the police, and by their political commitments prevent any new police force or equivalent emerging. The call for a workers'/popular militia to oppose the islamists' militias raised by the WCPI is in these circumstances immediately agitational.

Clive Bradley, defending comrade Matgamna's line, argues that "the occupation remains the real source of power of the state, or remains the substitute for a state, or whatever phrase is best; and its withdrawal would amount to the collapse of the state". The result would be civil war and ethnic cleansing. Clive seems not to have noticed that the ethnic, or more exactly religious, cleansing is already going on under the aegis of the parties of the puppet government supported by the occupiers.

Daniel Randall, like David Broder, argues for the AWL to call for the withdrawal of troops: "the labour movement will not and cannot become strong enough to be a socially hegemonic force if it is shackled to this kind of de facto reliance on the protection of the occupation. It will only strengthen itself in opposition to and in struggle against its enemies - which, as we all agree, quite prominently includes the US occupation."

Illusions and sectarianism

The AWL's refusal to call for the withdrawal of troops has been grounded all along on the proposition that the imperialist occupiers either do, or maybe just might, create space for the workers' movement to organise which would not otherwise exist.

At the beginning of the occupation, this argument had a certain limited plausibility on the basis of the neocons' ostensible ideology and of the fact that the US under previous administrations did intervene - diplomatically and to some extent by covert political support - in support of the creation of "bourgeois democratic" (ie, parliamentary) regimes in Latin America in place of the regimes of the generals, and that its 'colour revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine have been presented as similar events.

The problem was that it failed to grasp the underlying dynamics which were driving the US war on Iraq; and it failed to grasp the limits of American power. These failures grew out of the AWL's false 'imperialism of free trade' analysis of global developments (see my 2004 series on this issue and other articles on the subject collected at www.cpgb.org.uk/theory/imperialism.htm). Because the AWL did not grasp the role of the decline of US imperialism and of the context of the general weakening of capitalism as such, they imagined - like the neocons - that it was possible for the US to pull off a reconstruction  á la Germany after 1945.

By late 2003 it was clear that what the war and occupation had created in Iraq was, in fact, state failure and incipient warlordism, loosely presided over by the occupation troops. Civil war had therefore become inevitable and necessary, since without a civil war no state can be created out of the condition of warlordism. The occupiers' objective, unintended role was and is to make this civil war as slow, long drawn-out and painful as possible by blocking the emergence of any political centre which has the potential to create a state - because such a political centre would inevitably be opposed to the occupiers' goals of a US-friendly regime.

In these conditions, the only possible way forward for the workers' movement is something like the policy of the WCPI/ Iraqi Freedom Congress: to develop the self-defence of the workers' movement as an alternative to the islamist militias, within the frame of unequivocal opposition to the occupation.

The idea that the erratic interventions of the occupying troops in any sense protected the Iraqi workers' movement had become obvious nonsense. But the AWL has clung to it through the ensuing three years, even as the occupiers have allied with a section of the islamists, and the chaos and warlordism has deepened. The inevitable result is that they are tarred with the brush of the pro-war 'left' (Aaronovitch and co).

This was the AWL's conscious choice. The substantive argument against calling for the withdrawal of troops has always been pathetically weak. The other side was and remains: 'If we call for the withdrawal of troops, we ally ourselves with the "kitsch left" who support the islamists as being "anti-imperialist". We have to prioritise solidarity with the Iraqi workers' movement, on class grounds.' But this always was and still is an utterly false choice. It is perfectly possible to campaign both for the immediate withdrawal of the occupying troops and for solidarity with the Iraqi workers' movement. There can be a third camp - the camp of the workers! Comrades Matgamna and Bradley's insistence that the withdrawal of troops would inevitably mean the end of the Iraqi workers' movement is precisely to deny that this is possible.

It is also substantively sectarian: what it really amounts to is saying that because the Socialist Workers Party calls for the withdrawal of troops (and prettifies the islamists), therefore the AWL should not call for the withdrawal of troops.

When we reach the point that the AWL still refuses to call for the withdrawal of troops when even a significant minority of the US capitalist state-elite has begun to recognise that the occupation is achieving nothing, we reach the point of absurdity. Hopefully, the debate in Solidarity points to the AWL beginning to correct its utterly disastrous error on this question.

But the hour is getting late. The choice increasingly presents itself as: steps towards the withdrawal of troops - or towards the extension of the war to Iran.