Iraq: don’t let the tail of sloganising wag the Marxist dog

Submitted by AWL on 14 April, 2008 - 8:31 Author: Martin Thomas

Q. You’re writing a polemic for the AWL “majority” position on Iraq against “the minority”?

A. It falsifies the debate to put it that way. For a start, “the minority” have different views among themselves. The final revised proposal on Iraq for AWL conference submitted by David Broder and two other AWL people differs seriously — in politics, not just literarily — from what David wrote in Solidarity 3/128.

For example, though David in that article insisted on troops out now, the conference proposal pointedly does not.

I don’t reproach the three for having differences between themselves. There are many shades of difference among “the majority”, too. But it harms our debate to present it as a matter of a homogeneous “minority” confronting a homogeneous “majority”.

Q. Oh, all right. What’s your argument?

A. The US/UK occupation is bad. The immediately-available alternative to it is throwing Iraq into the hands of sectarian clerical-fascist militias, who will fight it out among themselves. That is also bad, in fact worse.

Our job is not to be the inspectors-general of history, counselling the working class on which among the bourgeois alternatives immediately available is the lesser evil and therefore should be supported. We are for the working class creating its own alternatives — “the Third Camp”.

Therefore, for Iraq, we advocate solidarity with the workers’ movement against both the US/UK forces and the sectarian militias to win democracy, self-determination, secularism and workers’ rights.

Q. So you acquiesce in the US/UK occupation?

A. No. This is how Sean Matgamna put it in the discussion with Barry Finger in 2005 which triggered the debate in AWL.

“The Shia alliance talk[s] of troops out [but] in any case it was ‘general position’ for troops out — like ours — not a call for ‘Troops Out Now’. Some Shia call for troops out, perhaps meaning immediately, and some do not, though in general the troops are very unpopular...

The immediate or, in Barry Finger’s expression, ‘precipitous’ withdrawal of the occupying troops would, most likely, lead to three-way sectarian (Sunni, Shia) and national (Kurdish) civil war... In those conditions, the nascent Iraqi labour movement — which is our central concern — would probably be destroyed.

The opposite is not necessarily true: that if the occupation continues, there will be no civil war, no theocracy, no destruction of the labour movement, no bloody disintegration of the Iraqi entity... But a ‘precipitous’ withdrawal would maximise the chances of destruction for the labour movement.

We preach ‘no political trust or confidence’ in the American, British, or any ruling class, in their states, their politicians, or their armies. We indict US/UK misdeeds unsparingly; say to those Iraqi socialists whom we can reach and to people in Britain that they cannot rely on the US and UK to bring democracy...

We say that the peoples of Iraq must have self-determination. We maintain a stance of hostility to the troops and we do not call on the British and Americans to stay.

What we refuse to do, and it is the crux of our dispute with Barry Finger, is raise a ‘demand’, Troops Out Now, whose likely, calculable, practical consequences we do not want. Which may well bring on a catastrophe that will abort all the possibilities that the rising labour movement is opening for the working class of Iraq..."

We are, in general, for getting the US troops out of Iraq. But we believe how that is done - by the sectarian militias, or by a labour or at least democratic movement - is critical. We reject the negative slogan “troops out” when circumstances give it a reactionary positive content (throw Iraq to the sectarian militias).

Q. But that was about “Troops Out Now”. The three have now dropped that.

A. “Troops out”, proposed as a summary practical-conclusion slogan, recommended on the grounds that it “poses the question of the occupation in the immediate” [the three’s text, my emphasis] is only a more mealy-mouthed version of “troops out now”.

Q. Aha, but you can’t evaluate the slogan “troops out” as if it were a call to push a button and make the troops disappear. “It is an agitational slogan around which to organise a workers’ movement fighting for real self-determination” (so say the three).

A. If you want “to organise a workers’ movement fighting for real self-determination”, why not make that your slogan?

The three concede that “troops out” does not at all necessarily mean “troops forced out by the workers’ movement”, and that “troops out” in anything like current circumstances means the crushing of the workers’ movement and the very opposite of Arab-Iraqi self-determination (i.e. it means the carving-up of Iraq, through civil war between the militias, into statelets more or less under the hegemony of neighbouring powers).

And then they blandly assert that their recommended summary slogan “really” means something very different from what the simple, short words say. It is not “make the troops withdraw, how that’s done is secondary, and let rip” but (by assertion only) “an agitational slogan around which to organise a workers’ movement fighting for real self-determination”.

The three here are falling into an old, old trap of kitsch-Trotskyist politics — the demand which is “transitional... in your head”.

“A system of transitional demands”, so Trotsky has taught us, should be a “bridge... stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat”.

It is not always easy to find such demands in reality. So, instead, our movement has often fallen into using make-believe substitutes.

You formulate a demand which seems to give a snappy answer to “today’s conditions”. It is “agitational”. It “poses” the issues “in the immediate”. And then you construct the “bridge” by declaring that the “real” meaning of this snappy agitational demand is something much more revolutionary.

An example: kitsch-left agitation about the European Union. You have a “do-it-now” slogan — “Britain out of the EU”, or “no to the euro”, or similar. It is popular, it seems to give an immediate answer to the issues posed by, say, the EU’s conservative monetary regime, or its pro-privatisation regulations.

And then you deflect the objection that such slogans mean defence of a relatively isolated Britain, or of the pound, by asserting that the slogans “really” mean “For a socialist united Europe!”

In any timescale relevant to considering “Britain out of the EU” as an “immediate” slogan, it simply does not mean a socialist united Europe. Nor does “troops out now”, or “troops out” “in the immediate”, mean “organise a workers’ movement fighting for real self-determination”.

The three want a “troops out” slogan because it is “in the immediate”, no-nonsense, do-it-now, “agitational”, and so on — but at the same time they want to claim that it is not simple or no-nonsense, and not to be taken literally.

Q. Stop evading! If you don’t say “Troops Out”, then you’re supporting the troops! Acquiescing in imperialism!

A. No. We do not acquiesce in imperialism in any way at all. The point is that we also refuse to acquiesce in reactionary anti-imperialism.

When Lenin and Trotsky opposed the slogan “Down with the Versailles Treaty”, raised by ultra-lefts in the early CP in the early 1920s, and then again by the Stalinists in the early 1930s, that did not mean that they acquiesced in the Versailles Treaty. It meant that they didn’t endorse (even implicitly, by way of a negative slogan) the immediately-available alternative, war by Germany against France and Britain (which is, of course, how Hitler did actually bring down the Versailles Treaty).

The trap here is thinking in terms of “what do we tell George W Bush to do?” That is not the question for us. Even when we pose demands as demands “on” bourgeois governments, as we sometimes do, the essential meaning of them, for us, is to guide working-class action.

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