Why socialists can not support the USA in Iraq (part 3)

Submitted by AWL on 9 March, 2005 - 9:18

Capitulators of today and yesterday

An example from the history of the USSR will also shed some Marxist light on the question of the attitude Marxists take when alien, anti-working class forces, are, or seem to be, doing work we want done, and would like to be strong enough to do ourselves, in our way.

In the mid 1920s, Trotsky and the Left Opposition, then the United Opposition (with Zinoviev), advocated a programme of industrialisation for the USSR. Their opponents, the Stalinists and the Bukharinites, scoffed at such an idea.

Then in 1928-9, faced with an upsurge of resistance by rich peasants (the “kulaks”), the Stalinists, who controlled the state, broke with the “right wing” Bukharinites, wiped out the kulaks, and forcibly drove the peasants into collective farms, wreaking vast destruction in rural Russia. Simultaneously, they launched a powerful drive to industrialise the USSR.

Their state waged a savage one-sided civil war on most of the people over whom they ruled. They turned Russian society upside down. In the Ukraine they created an artificial famine and used it to break the resistance of the peasants, three million or more of whom died.

The Trotskyists had been finally defeated in December 1927, and many hundreds of them, including most of those who had led the Bolshevik revolution, exiled to Siberia and similar wilderness places. From there they saw the Stalinists beginning to industrialise the USSR, at a furious pace and with murderous recklessness.

Some of the exiles began to ask themselves, and each other: isn’t this our programme which Stalin is carrying through? A cruel, crude, wasteful caricature of it, indeed. But the Stalinists are what they are, and, even so, it is a version of our programme that they are implementing. Don’t we want to see done what they are trying to do? Putting our “factional” feelings aside in the interests of the revolution, don’t we want them to succeed?

And if they are defeated in their struggle with the peasants, will that not lead to bourgeois counter-revolution, to the final destruction of the October Revolution? Aren’t we, as serious people, obliged to do whatever we can to help them?

So many of the defeated Oppositionists began to think.

Some of them were demoralised and wanted only an excuse to give up the fight. Many of them were entirely sincere. They began to resent Trotsky, Rakovsky, and the other irreconcilables. In that mood, hundreds of them capitulated to Stalin in 1928 and 1929.

Abandoning their own politics, they served the Stalinists. Some, Pyatakov for example, took leading positions in the construction of the new industries. In the purges of the mid-30s, almost all of them would be shot or imprisoned.

Against these self-depoliticised ex-Bolshevik “social engineers” and would-be “administrators of the historical process”, what did Trotsky and his comrades say? Trotsky insisted that, quite apart from specific criticisms of what the Stalinists were doing — and he was highly critical — the fundamental thing for revolutionary socialists was not only what was being done, but who was doing it, and how.

Lenin, expressing the same idea in general, says somewhere that the most fundamental issue in the politics of class society is who? whom? Trotsky now posed the same basic question to the capitulators: who? whom?

Trotsky too believed that, fundamentally, what the Stalinists were doing was historically progressive, despite all that had to be said against their methods. He believed that the pressure of the Opposition and its programme had played a big part in determining that the Stalinists, when their old pro-kulak policy broke down, turned on the rich farmers and on the Bukharinite right wing of their own party.

But Trotsky refused to blind himself to the difference between the programme of the working-class Left Opposition and what the bureaucracy was actually doing “on the ground”.

Both the Trotskyists and the rightists around Bukharin had wanted to retain the market framework which had been introduced in 1921, with the “New Economic Policy”. The Stalinists shattered it entirely and created a regime in which the totalitarian state used mass terror as the instrument for enforcing its own arbitrary and subjective economic and social decisions, recognising neither economic nor human nor any other restriction or restraint.

Where the Left Opposition had coupled proposals for industrialisation with proposals for raising working-class wages and improving working-class conditions, the Stalinists in their drive to industrialise cut wages, savagely worsened working-class conditions, destroyed the trade unions as workers’ defence organisations, and created pseudo-unions to regiment the workers on behalf of the state and its objectives. They turned the working class of the USSR into something closer to a class of slaves than to a free proletariat.

The result was needless chaos, waste, starvation, deprivation, famine, and the death of millions.

They did however industrialise the USSR. To this day you will find academics to argue that Stalin carried out the industrialisation programme of the Left Opposition — that the Left Opposition had first advocated the policies that Stalin eventually carried out. In fact Stalin’s was a different industrialisation, serving different objectives, and, for the working class and society as a whole, producing radically different results. Who? whom? proved to be the all-defining questions. Means shaped ends, the “who” determined the “what”.

Looking back with the hindsight of three quarters of a century, we can see what Trotsky did not so clearly see, that the difference between the programme of the Left Opposition and the seeming variant of it being carried out by the Stalinists was a class difference. Both the Left Opposition and Stalin were for “industrialisation”, but they represented different class programmes of industrialisation.

What Trotsky did see clearly in 1928-9 was that socialists who had undertaken to organise and lead the working-class struggle for emancipation had to distinguish between the industrialisation of the bureaucracy and the sort of industrialisation, serving the working class, that the Opposition had advocated. He saw that the Opposition had to maintain their own political programme. They had to criticise the bureaucracy and its methods mercilessly, and continue to counterpose their working-class programme to that of the bureaucracy.

They had to defend the working class, and help the working class to defend itself from the bureaucracy. Whatever it meant for the tempo of the bureaucracy’s version of industrialisation, the immediate material interests and well-being of the working class had to be championed and secured — just as, under capitalism, whether its work was considered progressive or not, the Marxists put the organisation, education, and self-assertion of the working class before everything else.

They did not identify with bureaucratic industrialisation. They did not politically support Stalin. In short, they refused to join their ex-comrades who chose to betray the interests and the cause of the working class and go over to the “progressive” bureaucracy.

The argument would be beside the point that Bush and Blair, representing free-market pluto-democracy, are not to be compared to the totalitarian Stalin. The analogy is between the Left Oppositionists who saw Stalin carrying through what looked like a variant of their industrialisation programme, and socialists now who see Bush’s and Blair’s attempt in Iraq to realise, in their own way and for their own reasons, a bourgeois-democratic regime that for us is both desirable and, when the working class is not yet ready to make a socialist revolution, necessary.

The analogy is between the politically demoralised and deracinated ex-Trotskyist capitulators who thought that the best contribution they could make to securing the interests of socialism was to go over to Stalin and commit political and moral suicide — and our former comrades who think that the best contribution they can make to progress in Iraq is to cease to be other than notional socialists, and, instead, to become cheerleaders for Blair and Bush and their Communist Party allies in Iraq.

The differences between our contemporaries who go over to Blair and the oppositionists who went over to Stalin are instructive too. Stalin was embattled when the capitulators rallied to him; Blair controls Britain, and Bush, the world-bestriding hyper-power.

The 1928-9 capitulators thought Stalin was defending and extending working class power; and that they really could make a difference in the fight, as they mistakenly saw it, between historical progress and historical reaction. Their view that they themselves could make a difference was not absurd.

The ex-Marxist Blairites think that, by backing Bush and Blair, by adopting the politics of their allies in Iraq, like the CPI, by helping Blair against his critics at Labour Party Conference, they can control or influence the outcome in Iraq. The idea is preposterous! To believe that is to believe in sympathetic magic. if the superstitious ex-Marxists don’t chant their uncritical support for Bush and Blair. If the shaman doesn’t dress up in green and say the right words at the right time, then Spring will never come again. If the tribe doesn’t make the right mimic noises and dance the right mimetic dance wearing the right costumes, at the right time, then the herds won’t pass this way again....

Mañana Third Campists

Acentral political difficulty in arguing with the born-again Blairites is that, though they have gone over to the camp of the bourgeoisie, they still try to deny it (perhaps even to themselves).

Though they reject all the relevant concerns, norms and “precedents” of the revolutionary socialist movement on war, peace and on how communists behave during a “bourgeois” revolution — everything on which our approach is erected — they pretend or half pretend, to argue still from within the Marxist tradition which some of them once had in common with AWL.

They introduce a small “correction” into what were our common politics. Third Camp politics are fine, but they will become “operational” only in the future. Not today, not in “real time”; some other time. They are still Third Campists — but mañana Third Campists!

For today they console themselves and others with the illusory perspective that everything is all right for democracy, the Iraqi labour movement and the fight against clerical fascism and other forms of reaction in Iraq — Blair and Bush are on the job! All socialists — especially Iraqi socialists — can do is back them, help to “hold up their hands”, until they succeed.

“Tomorrow”, promise the Blairites-For-The-Duration, they will again be Third Camp independent socialists. Tomorrow belongs to the “Third Camp”, working class political independence and socialism. But today — that belongs to Blair, Bush, and their allies in Iraq!

As Lenin wrote about Karl Kautsky:

“We have any number of promises to be a Marxist sometime in another epoch, not under present conditions, not at this moment. For tomorrow we have Marxism on credit, Marxism as a promise, Marxism deferred. For today we have a petty bourgeois opportunist theory — and not only a theory — of softening contradictions... In practice he who denies the sharp tasks of today in the name of dreams about soft tasks in the future becomes an opportunist. Theoretically it means to fail to base oneself on the developments now going on in real life, to detach oneself from them in the name of dreams...”

Or, in this case, to give up — “for now”, of course — the “dream” of building the “Third Camp” of an independent working class left and attach oneself to the powers that govern the affairs of the world.

Though labour movements exist in many countries, what does not exist is a strong international “Third Camp” in Trotsky’s sense: a politically independent labour movement, in which the working class acts as a “class for itself” in politics, counterposing itself to all the other camps and in the first place to the bourgeoisie of its own state.

From where we are to that, we have a long political way to go. Though great transformations may happen in a relatively short time — “twenty years in a day” — a strong organised “Third Camp” does not yet exist.

In this situation, our basic approach is the one Max Shachtman expounded when explaining his opposition to the Korean war.

“We have no intention or desire, no right and no need, to abandon the fight for socialism in this way or in any other. The Third Camp does exist. It is nothing but the camp of the workers and oppressed peoples everywhere who are sick to death of insecurity, exploitation, subjection and increasingly abominable wars, who aspire to freedom, peace and equality.

“We never promised that we would be able to organise them into an independent movement, packed, wrapped, sealed and delivered by a specified date. We did say that unless they are organised into a movement independent of capitalism and Stalinism, the decay and disintegration of the world would continue, as it has. We did say that the forces of the Third Camp of socialism and liberty, are here, and it is our sworn duty to help organise them into an independent movement.

“The only way we know how to do this is: tell the truth about capitalism and Stalinism; help make those we can reach conscious of the problem of society today and how to solve it, and increase the clarity of those who are already partly conscious of it...

“Our opposition to the war does not mean support of Stalinism, in Russia or elsewhere.

“Only ignorant or mendacious people say that. The best that can be said for such people is that they are so completely sceptical about the ability of the masses to attain socialist independence freedom and peace, that in their obtuseness they conclude that the only way American imperialism can be opposed is by helping Stalinist imperialism. We will try to teach the ignorant better; and we will answer the mendacious as they deserve to be answered.

“Our opposition to Stalinist imperialism is not one whit less uncompromising than our opposition to American imperialism. We do not need any instruction on how to fight the latter so that the former is not the gainer thereby. We do not oppose American imperialism so that it may be defeated by Stalinism...

“The Social-Democrats [reform “socialists”], to whom the Third Camp is a joke because they long ago ceased to regard socialism as a real fighting goal, have naturally proclaimed their adherence to the cause of American imperialism in Korea. The Fourth Internationalists to whom the Third Camp is an incomprehensible and uncomprehended blasphemy because they regard Stalinist totalitarianism as part of the working-class camp, have just as naturally proclaimed their adherence to the side of the Stalinists in Korea.

“The voice of socialist independence and internationalism is stilled in those movements or reduced to a whisper.

“In our movement, it will remain clear and firm. It will be heard, and it will be echoed”.

The working class and with it the “Third Camp” left is politically weak? The Bushes, Blairs and their like dominate the world? Indeed.

Therefore? Marxists who take their politics seriously believe that the precondition for changing such a situation to one more favourable to socialism is that the Marxists steadfastly advocate their politics, and work to build independent socialist organisations. That no other attitude is consistent with a real commitment to socialism has been the irreducible attitude of the Marxist movement all the way back to Marx and Engels.

If the Marxists lose heart, efface their own politics, latch on to a role in the alien bourgeois “political process” instead of playing their own proper role, that of obdurate propagandists and critics, then the consequence will be to perpetuate the working-class unripeness. The working class will never become “ripe”, never “Bolshevik” — that is, educated, organised, and committed to all-out class war until we win.


The politics of the New Blairites consists of the cheap and foolish urge to write themselves into the current big-bourgeois and imperialist political scenario. They play there the only role they conceivably can play, that of political lick-spittles and organisers of a claque to cheer on their “team”, sing its praises, wear its “colours”, jeer at its enemies, and shout encouragement in the sad and futile style of the fantasy footballer yelling frantic advice and encouragement from the terraces. But most vicarious footballers don’t suffer from the delusion that they can by their activities control or influence what the players do or the shape of the match!

The only practical consequence of such politics is that the socialists remove themselves as socialists from the longer-term political “process”.

The idea that Iraq is “the hinge of our times”, as someone expressed it, may be true or false, but, either way, the political conclusion for serious socialists is not that we amalgamate ourselves politically with Bush and Blair. Trotsky correctly wrote in the early thirties that Germany was the hinge of European and world politics. Most of subsequent 20th century history, maybe even the final consolidation of Stalinism in Russia, was shaped by Hitler’s triumph.

But what followed from Trotsky’s tragically correct perception? That Marxists should throw their weight behind the bourgeois-democrats, the liberals and the Social Democrats — the biggest working-class based party in Germany? That we owed them loyal, and even uncritical, support? That in the presidential election of 1932, when it was a choice between Hitler and the old mainstream right-winger Hindenburg, we should have followed the Social Democrats in backing Hindenburg?

Not for Trotsky! By driving the disaffected into the camps of the Nazis and Stalinists, the liberals and Social Democrats helped Hitler. And finally, when Hindenburg, just recently the “democratic” candidate against Hitler for president, called Hitler to be Chancellor, they “democratically” acquiesced in the “democratic” Reichstag.

Nobody not born yesterday can seriously think that the American “bourgeois democrats” will not install some clericalist or quasi-fascist regime, or — after they have rebuilt the Iraqi army — some military dictatorship, with or without “democratic” frills, if that is the “best” they can get that will serve their interests. Or that Blair, or his successor, would not “democratically” acquiesce. The more the situation deteriorates, the more likely something like that becomes.

The pixilated kibitzers and fantasy footballers on the right are the mirror image of the “reactionary anti-imperialists” on the kitsch left.

They are reminiscent of a bizarre section of the movement against the Vietnam War, in the 1960s. Led by a quasi-Maoist called Manchandra, their point of honour was that the British campaign should say exactly what the Vietnamese government said, want what it wanted, change when it changed, and religiously refrain from saying anything that even implicitly differed from it, or, god forbid, criticised it. For example: the Vietnamese government, properly from their point of view, wanted negotiations. So Manchandra said that to hold on to the idea that our job in the West was to insist that the USA just get out was a betrayal. It was “a lie” that we supported the Vietnamese.

Another precedent is what one group of ex-Trotskyists did in the solidarity campaign which some of us tried to build to support the newly-arisen Polish labour movement, Solidarnosc, in 1980-1. Inverted kitsch-Trotskyist sectarians, they treated the work of building solidarity as less important than their own pin-headed campaign against “Leninism”. They tried to make an anti-Bolshevik, retrospective, Polish nationalism a central part of the campaign for solidarity with the new Polish trade unions — that is to make solidarity work in support of Solidarnosc conditional on acceptance of their own invert-sect politics.

With the ex-Marxist Blairites, the same obsession with a new ideological toy, the same obsession with maximising the differences with the existing labour and socialist movement (in their case an obsession with inverting the SWP), in a way that is politically scandalous and destructive for the work of building solidarity.

Whatever policy the American and British or other bourgeois forces pursue, even if they are doing — in their own way — something that we want to see done, we advocate working class political and organisational independence from them and what they do. We tell the labour movement that it should place neither trust nor reliance in any bourgeois force.

We know that any “progressive” role played by the USA, Britain, the EU, or whatever, will be shaped and warped by what they are, by their imperialism of colonial conquest or of trade and power.

A US-friendly, economically compliant regime is primarily what the US wants. Given that, they may go for well short of even a serviceable bourgeois democracy in order to “stabilise” Iraq.

The US is not trying to reduce Iraq to an old-style colony (as, for example, Russia was in Afghanistan and, say, Italy in feudal Ethiopia in the mid-1930s). But there is certainly a large dimension of imperialism in the US policy in Iraq.

If the USA were to pursue a comprehensive world wide “democratic foreign policy” , it would at one and the same time be pursuing, in that way, the goal of a world imperium for the US hyperpower. It is a serious possibility that the upshot of the US-Iraq war will be a long-term — and a possibly expanding — US “colonial” presence in the Middle East. We don’t know, yet. Possibly the US government doesn’t know.

A situation may develop in which the policy of the Lenin-Trotsky Communist International, in the era of colonial imperialism, would guide us. We would back a genuine national liberation movement, even one led by reactionaries (of course, without politically endorsing the reactionaries).

None of this implies the policy of the “reactionary anti-imperialists”. It does not imply that when the US and Britain are attempting to set up an Iraqi bourgeois democratic system and withdraw eventually (though that may mean after quite a few years) we back Islamic clerical fascists, Ba’thists and Sunni supremacists, shouting “troops out now”.

It does imply that, even while we hope for an outcome in Iraq in which the labour movement can develop, we look with cold eyes on the US (and Britain) in Iraq.

Our primary obligation is to tell the truth — first to ourselves — about what is happening and what may happen. The whole truth, including the truth about the “democratic imperialists”.

Nothing but the truth: we should not indulge in soft-headed, “pixilated” fantasies that the US bourgeoisie is a pure — or relatively pure — force for “democracy”.

Only in that way can we fight for working class political independence.

We reject the idea that working class policy can be worked out as a mere negative imprint of bourgeois policy. And we also scorn the cheap delusion that if we shout “good on you!”, “we’re with you!”, we can affect, shape or control what, in their own interest and for their own goals, they do.

We recognise that the cost of that cheap delusion-of-influence is a loss of political clarity, definition and identity for the erstwhile revolutionary socialists. We tell the truth about it if the bourgeoisie is or may be doing something “progressive”, but, as Trotsky put it, we are “the party of irreconcilable opposition”. We relate to the bourgeoisie in all circumstances with mortal working-class socialist hostility.

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