Compromised 'opposition'

Mark Fischer comments on the imperial economism of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, which is most crassly expressed in the organisation's refusal to call for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq

Paul Hampton kicks off his report of last month's conference of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty by telling us: "Anyone wondering why AWL members are combative with those we disagree with in the left and the labour movement might be surprised at the way we argue with each other - it's even sharper" (Solidarity June 7). Paul further explains that this 'sharp' and "thorough debate" is designed to "fight for clarity "¦ to tell the truth and to call things by their right names".

Actually, there has been very little in the way of "clarity" on an issue that has cleaved the British establishment and mobilised millions - the Iraq war and the subsequent disastrous US-UK occupation of that country. The question divided the conference near 50-50, I am told, with the 'troops out' amendment coming close to being adopted - but where has been the open debate and hard polemic from the opposition?

The majority of the organisation stubbornly continues to subscribe to a thoroughly pro-imperialist scab line that refuses to demand in any formulation the removal of imperialist troops: as comrade Hampton puts it, "we should reject glib 'immediate-answer' slogans like 'troops out' [note - not even 'troops out now'!] and focus on the basic orientation [of] 'Solidarity with the Iraqi workers against both the US-UK forces and the sectarian militias'".

Now the job of any internal opposition called forth by such a disgraceful position should be to openly rebel, precisely to bring "clarity" by clawing out the foul pro-imperialist logic of the majority stance and thus - in the pregnant words of comrade Hampton - to "call things by their right names". Instead, as personified in the figures of leading 'dissidents' Daniel Randall and David Broder, this is mouse-timid and politically compromised 'opposition' that is organically incapable of drawing sharp lines of political demarcation. That is because both sides of this near non-argument are incapacitated by the exactly the same opportunist problem: economism.

Before adding a little more meat to that accusation, it is worthwhile - yet again - defining our terms.

Economism is not simply a short-sighted concern with immediate working conditions, wage levels and trade union rights - this is a narrow, incomplete and, thus, wrong definition. That is one manifestation of it. At its core, economism is the trend that systematically underestimates the centrality of the democratic struggle for the working class to constitute itself as a political class.

Take this passage from Lenin's 'Imperialist economism' as a pithy summation. Lenin is chiding Kievsky - that is, Pyatakov - for failing to "appreciate the significance of democracy". Socialism, writes Lenin, is "impossible" without democracy, "because (1) the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy; (2) victorious socialism cannot consolidate its victory and bring humanity to the withering away of the state without implementing full democracy" (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, Moscow 1977, p74 - my emphasis, MF).

Thus, the imperialist economism of the majority AWL position is neatly summarised in the closing section of its windy and overly detailed conference resolution 'Solidarity with the Iraqi workers against both the US-UK forces and the sectarian militias'. Here we read that the AWL is "against the status quo in Iraq. But at this moment in time all we can do is try to build the forces which can change the situation for the better. We have no immediate answer." (For all the conference documents and the results of all votes - see www.workersliberty.org/node/8524.)

Clearly, this is political paralysis. It represents the impasse of a particular brand of politics, not simply the inarticulacy of the majority leaders - after all, this side has the experienced cadre with a long history in the movement. With a heavy heart, they sigh that they actually have nothing to say, nothing to advocate, nothing to fight for in relation to the main political question that sets Iraq aflame, that continues to represent a clear political fault line through the British establishment and through British politics more generally.

The majority explicitly excludes the working class from any role in this debate when they write that "the question, 'When should the US-UK troops get out?', is in reality a question between the ruling class and reactionary factions".

The only answer these comrades put into the mouth of the working class is this: "In fact, it is beyond our collective power when they withdraw "¦ In any case, it is the wrong focus. If we care about the peoples of Iraq, we should build solidarity with those forces who can ensure that when the troops withdraw [under their own volition and according to their own imperialist timetable!], Iraq can be a democratic and secular country".

But what about the 'opposition' to this majority line? Do they represent anything fundamentally different in terms of method or approach?

In an email exchange I had with Daniel Randall, he identifies the problem with the AWL majority's line as being that "it essentially counsels passivity to the Iraq labour movement, implying that it should batten down the hatches while the troops and the islamists slug it out over their heads" (May 21).

True, but what type of alternative do comrades Randall, Broder and their loose band of co-thinkers represent?

A very flimsy one, if truth be told. These comrades have set themselves the modest aim of at least getting the majority of their organisation to demand that the troops should withdraw at some indeterminate point in the future. If achieved this would not actually be as hard a 'troops out' position as sections of the American Democrats, of course. What both sides of the argument are united on is that the demand for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of troops is impermissible. Here is the nub of the oppositionists' argument on this:

""¦ there is clearly a big contradiction within [CPGB] politics; on the one hand you say that the point of raising slogans about the occupation is so the workers' movement can grow, galvanise itself and ultimately defeat the occupation. Fine - that's my position too. But on the other hand there is all this bluster about 'demanding the immediate, unconditional withdrawal', apparently in abstraction from helping the Iraqi labour movement become a force capable of forcing the troops out and carve a democratic solution out of whatever ensues. Within that framework, the 'troops out now' slogan isn't for the working class at all - it's an appeal to the bourgeoisie, to 'demand' that it changes its military tactics" (Randall email, May 24).

This is an extremely odd position for a Marxist to take. Leave aside the need to oppose the imperial wars and adventures of our own ruling class and force (not gently pursuade) the British government to bend to the will of the majority of people in this country. The notion that the working class in Iraq can position itself to "carve a democratic solution" post-occupation without taking a lead against the occupation in the here and now is simply bizarre. Obviously, the pivotal question in today's Iraq is the denial of that country's right to self-determination, enforced and ensured by the occupying powers of the US-UK.

Thus - comrade Randall's claim that "there is no-one in the AWL who doesn't oppose the occupation" notwithstanding - both sides of this spat in effect have a soft 'troops in' position. Both believe that under the protective umbrella of imperialist occupation the working class movement will gain strength, augment its membership lists, collect its dues and then, at some point in the indefinite future, challenge the imperialists.

This is the bitter fruit of economism. Fundamentally, the working class makes itself stronger - constitutes itself politically as a working class, actually - through fighting to become the leader of every democratic struggle in society without exception and no matter what class it affects (something that comrade Randall appears to dub "kitsch, classless anti-imperialism"). This is precisely why the proletariat of Iraq must take up the question of the occupation now in the form of an active, unconditional opposition (not a platonic opposition or promissory notes for future opposition).

It is hard to underestimate the urgency of this, both in Iraq and in the US-UK. It is absolutely indispensable for the process of working class political reconstitution in both countries. Indeed, in Iraq if the movement were to simply subsist at the politically primitive level that the AWL imperialist economists urge on it, then unquestionably it is more or less guaranteeing a future of endless repression.

One last point. The lack of seriousness of this 'opposition' is underlined by David Broder's assertion that "the debate in the AWL is one of tactics "¦ there is no pro-imperialist side, hence there is no dispute 'in principle'" (email, May 23). Of course, this is the same David Broder that has featured amongst the small flurry of letters to this paper over the past few weeks on the short and rather squalid history of the Red Party, a split from the CPGB that comrade Broder took part in. The argument between the ex-RPers has been fun and quite instructive in its way.

The RP originated as a faction in our organisation organised to oppose the majority's line on voting for Respect candidates: by any measure a tactical question. The RP comrades were allowed a regular column in the Weekly Worker, a link to their own website from the party's and plenty of time at aggregates and other meetings to expound their factional point of view. Yet, over this question of principle in the AWL - leaving aside comrade Broder's foolish attempt to relegate it to the realm of "tactics" - there has barely been a peep from these comrades, including David Broder.

He writes: "In retrospect, we were patently wrong to leave the CPGB without putting up a real fight" over Respect (David Broder blog: http://trotskyist.blogspot.com). Good to see the comrade has learned that much at least: but it would be nice to see him now put up a "real fight" over this patently more important and certainly more testing issue.