More questions than answers

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty minority must recognise the pro-imperialist logic of the majority's silence on the occupation of Iraq, argues Mark Fischer

It seems that some gentle polemical prodding at the Alliance for Workers' Liberty on the question of Iraq has produced results (see my article in Weekly Worker June 28). The majority of this organisation has a political line that will not countenance the demand for imperialist troops being forced out of Iraq. The milksop-minority opposition to this - which actually won the support of just short of 50% of the AWL conference in May - argues that, while the slogan for troops out is legitimate and necessary, to insist that this is an immediate, unconditional demand is, essentially, irresponsible sloganeering.

There have been two new contributions since last week. First, Paul Hampton has produced an irritable, 129-word blog entry that - if anything - is even more trashy than the original that I took apart (see www.workersliberty.org/blog/83). I am accused of penning a "pathetic article slandering the AWL" that is "notable only" for its "vapid rhetoric".

And, frankly, that's more or less as good as it gets. Comrade Hampton does not have the gumption to even address the rebuttal I made of his weary allegations of "gossip" against us.

Of far more interest then is the contribution from Daniel Randall - along with David Broder, one of the leading comrades in the 'troops out some time' minority - published in the AWL's Solidarity ('Questions and answers on Iraq', June 28).

Comrade Randall promises that this piece "is intended as part of a wider series of articles that will take up in greater depth the reasons why we believe our organisation's position on Iraq needs to change" (all Randall quotes from Solidarity June 28). Of course, we welcome this. In the course of a polemic, political clarity and clearer lines of demarcation have the chance to emerge.

Hopefully all comrades will then come to understand what is at stake and who is saying what. Unfortunately that is not the case at the moment. The comrade frustratedly complains that it was necessary to write because "Throughout the course of the debate leading up to AWL's 2007 AGM, and the debate at the AGM itself, it became obvious that many AWL members did not have a clear understanding of what those of us who held a minority position on Iraq were really advocating."

However, it is untenable that the likes of Sean Matgamna, Martin Thomas and Paul Hampton do not know what they are doing. They are hardly novices or political virgins. The point is - can the opposition come to realise what is going on and draw the necessary political conclusions? If it does, it could perhaps wage a faction fight worthy of the name.

Comrade Randall's article uses a question-and-answer format as he tries to summarise and address the majority's ideas. We will do the same "¦ except mainly in order to address the comrades of the AWL minority.

If not now, when?

First, there is the 'balance of forces' argument - ie, that the islamists would simply assume power in the event of the imperialist troops being magicked away. Correctly, comrade Randall recognises that for the Iraqi workers' movement to raise the demand for troop withdrawal is an essential element of its political reconstitution.

He writes, "If [the workers' and progressive movements] do not raise anti-occupation slogans, if they do not undertake anti-occupation struggle "¦ they will never be able to challenge the current balance of forces" in Iraq. Yet, if he recognises that this is a political process, not one of abstract sloganeering, dull trade union work or a decisive military intervention from Harry Potter, then why does comrade Randall take a stand against the call for the unconditional and therefore the immediate withdrawal of the occupation forces?

The minority comrades seem keen to cover their backs with their pro-occupation comrades by making efforts to differentiate themselves from the 'out now' stance of the CPGB. They write that our adherence to this principle is some sort of stiffly formalistic "slogan-mongering".

Comrade Randall pleads that "the exact form of words is secondary to this overall perspective [of encouraging a viable working class-based movement of opposition to the occupation]". Apparently, it is not serious politics "to claim that what is revolutionary about the slogan 'Troops out now' is the word 'now.'" The comrade even suggests that for us "the 'Troops out now' demand functions as an abstract expression of what [the CPGB] think the British and American ruling classes should do with their militaries, rather than an aspect of a programme whose point of departure is working class solidarity and the question of how the Iraqi labour movement can achieve hegemony."

This is simply cowardly nonsense, comrade. Despite the clap-trap from the pro-occupation majority (mimicked by Randall when he criticises the CPGB), the 'now' element of the demand does not encapsulate a piece of boldly ambitious advice we press on the imperialists for their due consideration. It embodies the understanding that they are not part of the solution in any form whatsoever and that every day the occupiers stay they make the situation worse. It flows from an estimation that a US-hegemonised imperialism cannot export democracy or even a managed stability (see below for more on this). It can only impose chaos and societal meltdown. The fact that the 'troops out some time' minority make an implicit concession on this pivotal point leads them into total political incoherence.

For example, comrade Randall writes that the opposition does "not believe that the Iraqi labour movement can become a decisive force in the struggle against the occupation without raising sharp demands that express its intransigent hostility to the presence of the troops" (my emphasis, MF). Of course, the minority comrades do not advocate an "intransigent hostility" to the presence of the troops. That can only be expressed through the demand for their unconditional withdrawal, or - more pithily - 'Troops out now'. At best, the minority has an equivocal position on this and - quite honestly - Daniel just talks gibberish when he tries to critically present our arguments.

He writes that the CPGB demands troops out now as a packaging exercise - a means to differentiate our political message from other political forces. He suggests that because we "claim" that "even Tony Blair could hold some sort of 'troops out' position, revolutionaries should distinguish ourselves from bourgeois politics by demanding 'troops out now.'"

First, unless comrade Randall and other AWLers believe that Bush and Brown and the British and American military establishments relish the prospect of a permanent war in Iraq - or a retro-style imposition of a direct colonial rule - then they too have a 'troops out some time' position. Or, put another way, they regard the presence of big troop numbers as a 'necessary evil' as things currently stand - exactly the same estimation that leads the AWL majority to refuse to mention their withdrawal in any form and the minority to explicitly dodge the question altogether.

Second, "intransigent opposition" to imperial occupations of other countries by one's 'own' government is a matter of principle, not of marketing tactics. It flows from our core understanding of the nature of imperialism - another question that the AWL minority must address in the course of this struggle, of course. We are opposed to the overseas adventures and war of our capitalist masters and we strive to equip our class with an independent foreign policy.

Third, comrade Randall may posture 'hard' when it comes to telling his majority comrades that "intransigent hostility" is required towards the occupation, but, faced with the concrete question of when he believes the troops ought to be sent packing, a 'dunno, don't care - whenever' shrug from the comrade is not really adequate as a manifestation of his 'intransigence', is it? In Iraq, the comrade might conceivably get away with not giving a straight answer. There the presumption is that if you declare yourself to be in any form of militant opposition to the occupation and its puppet government, you are unconditionally for its defeat and withdrawal.

As one leading member of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq told me when quizzed about this, "Of course you are right. That's what people naturally think. The occupation has done nothing for them, so if anyone comes to them and just says 'troops out', people naturally assume they mean immediate withdrawal - what else? They have done nothing good for us, why would we want them a minute longer?"

This exposes the scabby argument being used by the AWL majority. It runs like this, according to comrade Randall: "The AWL is not in any position to lecture the Iraqi workers' movement on programme. As a small group in Britain, all we can do is analyse the current situation in Iraq and provide material solidarity to the Iraqi labour movement. Wouldn't any sloganistic formulation of 'Troops out' or 'Troops out now' make us look like armchair generals or strategists making demands on a situation we really have no control over?"

This is pure evasion. First, because there are no prohibitions - moral or otherwise - on groups in the workers' movement criticising the politics even of much larger trends in any part of the world. In this context, we have not noticed the AWL modestly sheathing its polemical sword when it comes to Rifondazione in Italy, the 'official communists' when they ruled Afghanistan, left nationalist groups in Ireland, the Chávez movement in Venezuela, or, as comrade Randall himself points out, Palestinians on the West Bank. We hazard a guess that the Matgamnaites are about as thick on the ground in Baghdad as they were/are in Kabul. The 'none of our business' plea is a cover for shamefaced pro-imperialism and should be dismissed with contempt.

The real point is this, however. While it is hardly a surprise that there is consensus in Iraq for immediate withdrawal, given the horror visited daily on that society by sanctions, the war and then subsequent occupation, where the question is far more problematic, of course, is in the United States and the UK - the side of the political equation that has received far too little attention up to now in this exchange. This is what lays bare any group's attitude/political relationship to its 'own' ruling class.

Why should communists attach such importance to the demand for the unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq?

Simply because the workers' movements - in both the US and the UK - are thoroughly saturated in chauvinistic illusions about the relatively progressive, democratic or even 'civilising' potentialities of imperialism. This is precisely the backward sentiment to which the AWL attempts to align its politics.

Yet this type of opportunist infection - as Marx pointed out in his time - fatally undermines the fight to constitute workers' movements in the UK and USA as politically independent entities (and thus as organs that can effectively wage the struggle on their own behalf - note his comment to the effect that until the workers of Britain had drawn an implacable line of political demarcation between their own attitude to Ireland and that of the bourgeoisie they would achieve little or nothing on their own account).

If we are successful in this struggle to win the workers' movement in the UK to become a politically independent, consistently anti-imperialist force, this would mean a qualitative leap in the scale of the material, political and ideological aid we would be able to give to the struggle of the workers' movement and its allies in Iraq as they address their own tasks. It would be the greatest act of solidarity we could provide, in fact.

The comrades of the AWL minority must ask themselves this - if their conclusion is that the imperialist occupiers have no progressive role to play in today's Iraq, does this correct observation have a general theoretical lesson concerning the nature of contemporary capitalism, its vitality as a system, etc?

In Solidarity April 20, 2004 Sean Matgamna told readers that "right now the proclaimed programme of the US-UK in Iraq and their Iraqi clients and allies - the setting up of a viable democratic Iraqi government, and ultimate US withdrawal - is relatively progressive, and that of their armed opponents is reactionary by any measure you choose to use ... For all these reasons we condemn slogans like 'Troops out now' as inappropriate to the situation in Iraq".

Three years later, the comrade - understandably - is appreciably less upbeat about developments, but still following the same template of criticising the imperialists for clumsily undermining their own democratic programme: "The brutal rulers of the USA and Britain are perfectly capable of bungling and blundering into the destruction of all the progressive possibilities that now exist - or may still exist - in Iraq, and thus into making their stated aim of a bourgeois-democratic Iraq impossible. They may already have dealt irresponsible blows to those prospects" (my emphasis Solidarity April 2 2007).

These illusions in the "proclaimed programme" of imperialism have a basis in the AWL's theory, of course. For the sake of political clarity and consistency, comrades of the minority ought to draw the link between the political stance of their pro-occupation comrades and its underpinning, as elaborated, for example, by leading members of the group during the early days of the occupation in 2004.

In exchanges at the time, AWLers castigated CPGBers for failing to face up to the uncomfortable fact that imperialism sometimes did things that were progressive. We reported comrade Paul Hampton arguing in one meeting that our dual stance on Iraq - for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops and for the workers' movement in Britain to give support to the Iraqi workers' and progressive organisations - rested on the misconception that capitalism, and especially US imperialism, was in decline.

On the contrary, the comrade opined that we now faced the apogee of the world market classically analysed by Marx. This development had been held back by the reactionary role of Stalinism until the 1990s, and capital was now setting out to "re-engineer" the Middle East for its own purposes: the results were messy and brutal, as the introduction of capitalism generally was, but ultimately they would be in the interests of the working class as a class (See Weekly Worker July 29 2004).

The grand theory underlying this pathetic assertion was  elaborated by the AWL's Martin Thomas in the December 2002 issue of Workers' Liberty, its now defunct journal. Along with a number of reviews, the comrade also penned introductions to two reprints - an article by Karl Kautsky on 'ultra-imperialism' (famous among communists chiefly for having been the subject of furious polemics by Lenin) and Kautsky's 1907 pamphlet Socialism and colonial policy.

The operative conclusions reached were twofold: "Our underlying goal is workers' control, the political economy of the working class, the establishment of worldwide social standards and rights by international working class action, and the struggle for worldwide democratic socialist revolution, and global democracy. Every right of national self-determination, every other broad democratic right, is an important stepping stone for that battle" (pp29-30).

On the other hand, "We do not support smaller capital against big capital in the way that we support the rights of smaller nations against big powers. We do not support bigger capital either! Even if we surmise that a particular US 'globocop' action may ... bring some improvement on balance, we give no credit in advance to big-capitalist power. We seek to educate and mobilise the working class as an independent - which necessarily means, oppositional - force" (pp31-32).

The point of the Kautsky reprint becomes clear. Comrade Thomas argues in his introduction that the structured form of the 'western camp' in the cold war, now extended to cover the globe, "is a cousin of the 'ultra-imperialism' sketched by Kautsky". Lenin's criticisms of Kautsky thus may have been partly right in 1915-17, but Kautsky may be more helpful in addressing the world as it is - ie, a period of (relatively) peaceful capitalist world development that is leaving behind the 'pre-capitalist' curse of endemic wars, social dislocations and societal disintegration.

Clearly this helps illuminate the Matgamna comments above, where he alternatively lambasts the imperialists and then bemoans their lack of commitment to the democratic change professed in their formal programmes. It also explains the de facto political paralysis of the AWL majority. As the comrades from the minority point out, the silence on the occupation is worse than useless, in that it reduces the working class of Iraq to "a passive actor capable of nothing more than battening down the hatches while the conflict over the occupation takes place above its head between various imperialist and sub-imperialist forces" (D Broder and D Randall Solidarity May 18).

Indeed, the pro-occupation comrades admit as much when they concede that, for them, the timetable of the troops' exit is "in reality a question between the ruling class and reactionary factions" (Weekly Worker June 14).

The question is, why is the majority so hopelessly at sea?

How do the opposition characterise the politics of the majority?

The 'troops out some time' AWL minority has been very shy of attaching a sharp political characterisation to its pro-occupation comrades. Instead, we have been told that the debate is simply over "tactics" - political nuances within a shared overall political framework.

This may well be true at present, but we should then reiterate to the comrades the point made at the beginning of this article: in politics it is necessary to draw out the logic of errors you perceive as dangerous for the programmatic health of your group or trend "¦ and ultimately your class. And the first task of any course of treatment must be a correct and precise diagnosis: eg, if something is a cancer, then first call it a cancer.

So the opposition agree with us that the AWL majority is politically paralysed over Iraq. In practice it advocates leaving the high politics of the fight for self-determination - the leadership of the nation - to classes and strata other than the proletariat.

The opposition must explain this. In our view, it flows inexorably from the whole organisation's deeply flawed, economistic understanding of working class politics itself. Like much of the left, the AWL is characterised by a consistent underplaying of the role of our class as the hegemon of all democratic struggles in society, no matter what classes or layers are affected.

Thus, in a situation where 'normal' working class politics for the AWL - mostly perceived of as trade unionism - cannot operate and anyway has little or no political purchase on the key democratic question that embroils the society, the group's majority is reduced to absolute impotence and counsels us that silence on the imperialist occupation is the best option for militants.

When did the rot set in, comrades of the minority?

Clearly, the Iraq war and occupation has been an important moment in the opportunistic degeneration of the AWL. Mark Sandell, an AWLer of some standing, wrote in the June 26 2003 issue of Solidarity of the "slippage into 'lesser evil' politics" he perceived in the AWL's attitude to the start of the war. This was something "not posed positively in what we say but rather in what we do not say", he correctly noted.

That pro-imperialism by omission clearly hardened from a tendency to a set method as soon as the occupation began. Here is Sean Matgamna in 2006 on the "key" tasks of revolutionary socialists in Iraq:

"They should propagandise for and build workshop organisations, trade unions, and so on. They should preach socialism. They should adopt a political programme whose immediate demands are for a secular, democratic republic, civil rights, the separation of religion and state, an independent, sovereign Iraq, self-determination for the Kurds, rights for minorities like the Assyrians "¦.

"They will not, of course, ignore concrete realities and just mouth propagandist abstractions. While maintaining its intransigent class opposition to the US occupying forces, it would be right for such a third camp force not to call for immediate US-British withdrawal. It is right for the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions not to do so now" (Solidarity November 6 2006).

Now, apart from the fact that this seems very much like the sort of 'armchair general' advice to people on the ground in Iraq that the majority now tick off the opposition for, comrades should note those parts of this modest 'action programme' that might have an operative effect. Socialists in Iraq "should build workshop organisations, trade unions and so on". They should "adopt a political programme" that must include the demand for "an independent, sovereign Iraq". What they would be "right" not to do, however, is to "call for immediate US-British withdrawal".

In other words, as an "immediate demand" (my emphasis), they should call for Iraqi self-determination; but what they must refrain from is making the call for the immediate removal of the main barrier in the way of that right - as well as others Matgamna mentions - actually being exercised. They must not call for the removal of the occupying troops of imperialism.

In effect then, the only part of the programme as presented here that can have any purchase on the ground is the call to engage in low-level trade union work - and under whose auspices must that take place?

"The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions believes that the establishment of some sort of bourgeois-democratic system - even with the continued presence of US and British troops, which they oppose - is a better way forward for the Iraqi people. In that they are entirely correct.

"Socialism would be better. But if the working class is not yet able to win socialism, then the IFTU is right that the establishment and consolidation of the sort of bourgeois-democratic rights that now exist de facto, despite the bloody chaos in Iraq, and without which the trade unions cannot survive "¦ is the best possible option for the Iraqi working class" (Solidarity March 9 2005).

Leaving aside our fundamental criticisms of the category of 'bourgeois democracy', the clear message here is that the presence of occupation troops - the only power comrade Matgamna sees that can "consolidate" what he terms "bourgeois-democratic rights" - is "better".

Without the idea that it is the working class that must take the lead on democracy, there is a clear drift towards another agent of social progress. Although the AWL majority cannot yet say this proudly, clearly and unambiguously, that agent can only be imperialism.

How would the AWL minority opposition characterise the politics of such a development? We are quite clear - it is social imperialism. Will the 'troops out' minority still hold to the notion that this is all a spat about "tactics"? Or are there some more substantive issues of principle involved here, comrades?