Editorial, Workers' Liberty 30, April 2003
Regime change? We say it's not Bush's job but - are workers in the Middle East ready to build an alternative?
If any regime deserved to have war waged against it, it was Saddam Hussein's. Nevertheless, war by the United States and whatever allies it can pull behind it will not advance the cause of democracy and freedom in Iraq. It did not in 1991, and there is no reason to believe it will now. Last time we were quite lucky, in terms of the spread of the war, the involvement of Israel and so on. It seems possible that Ariel Sharon in Israel will use war this time as a cover to carry out the mass deportation of Palestinians they euphemistically call "transfer". In the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, the whole region is more unstable than it was in 1990/91: Islamists did well in the Pakistan election, and moderate Islamists won the elections in Turkey. Against signs of renewed opposition in Iran, with student protests, there has been repression. Who knows what war on Iraq will detonate?
Faced with the prospect of war, many on the left seem tempted to say stupid things about Iraq, as though wilful soft-soaping were the only answer to militarism. Whether or not Saddam had a nuclear capacity, he has proven in the past - against Iranians, and against the Kurdish people - his capacity and willingness to use chemical weapons. These may not be "weapons of mass destruction" as precisely defined by George W Bush, but the suggestion that Saddam had no capacity to do evil, and that his refusal to let outside observers check is merely protectiveness of Iraqi sovereignty, is naïve to say the least.
Western sanctions have proved disastrous, and have signally failed to remove Saddam from power. But the regime was not an innocent victim of "imperialist" oppression (and there are those within it who have made fortunes playing the system).
The Ba'ath's "anti-Zionism" is not something to applaud either. War by Iraq on Israel would be a catastrophe in terms of regional, if not world, peace. It would also be an act of chauvinistic, demagogic aggression at best, of genocidal madness at worst. (And for those not persuaded that Israeli civilians don't deserve to be suffocated by poison gas, consider that the weapons don't distinguish between Jews and Arabs.) Like other Arab nationalist regimes, and more so than most, the Ba'ath had used the enemy "over there" in Jerusalem as a demagogic diversion from internal issues. Then, when it counted, it failed the Palestinians utterly.
Soft apologetics for the Ba'ath are, indeed, reminiscent of the attitudes, historically, of Iraqi Stalinism, hoodwinked by the regime's rhetoric and nationalisation measures into seeing it as "anti-imperialist" (and, in their case, embarking on a "non-capitalist road to development").
There must be only so many disasters Saddam Hussein could preside over and survive. If the Iraqi opposition was stronger - meaning politically as well as organisationally, or numerically, stronger - his survival would have already have seriously been in question. That it is not is above all the responsibility of the ICP; but the curiosities of Iraqi politics run deeper than merely a particularly large and particularly bankrupt communist party. Why is it that alternatives to mainstream Stalinism have also been so rare in Iraq? A breakaway in the mid 1960s was more or less Maoist, not untypical of splits in the Stalinist movement. More radical alternatives have been non-existent. Across the border in Iran, this was not so. Whatever their undoubted deficiencies, the Iranian Left produced, in the 1970s, a host of organisations outside the orbit of mainstream Stalinism, or for that matter of Maoism. The Fedayin, the Mujaheddin and others, in their different ways, reflected a much richer political culture. There were Trotskyists in Iran - not a mass force, but a presence at least.
More, the working class itself was an explosive revolutionary and democratic force. The Iraqi working class seems to have played little role since it helped try to prevent the violent overthrow of Qassim, nearly 40 years ago. Perhaps this is not true, and an impression created only by too little information coming out of the country. It would be good to think so. But certainly there seems to be little evidence of even simple levels of working class activity, over wages and conditions, let alone political questions, under the Ba'ath regime. Compared with the state of affairs when the monarchy was overthrown, this is an extraordinary fact. It is as if the fundamental outcome of the whole era of bourgeois Arab nationalism has been to reduce, not increase, the role of the working class in political life. This is a picture which seems to be repeated across the Arab world. The working class was more important, politically, in the 1940s and 50s than, on the whole, it is now.
In Iraq there seems to be little by way of an Islamist movement, either, which is some blessing.
The weakness of the opposition is, in part, a result of the sheer weight of Ba'ath rule. The regime in Iraq was much closer to a Stalinist state, as in the USSR and Eastern Europe before 1989/90, than anywhere else in the Middle East, with a vast party apparatus, bureaucracy of careerists, and apparatus of torturers. In that sense it is more than military dictatorship - its tentacles of social control spread much wider, deeper and more perniciously, than, say, the Nasserite state in Egypt. It is hard to think of Iraq without imagining a dark, mind-crushing place, much more culturally primitive even than fundamentalist Iran.
Other dictatorships have fallen, suddenly, to mass upheavals. Perhaps there is an Iraqi equivalent of Eastern Europe in 1989 about to happen: under the surface, a great revolt is germinating. Let us hope so. But the evidence, at least for now and perhaps superficially, is that Ba'athist rule has been a terrible, crushing burden, forcing most Iraqis to think only of sheer survival.
Helping a democratic socialist, and working class opposition emerge, take on life, breathe, is a major task for socialists outside Iraq. When Saddam falls, though there may be a sudden mass movement, more likely in the first place it will be because the army moves against him. Western pressure will probably then encourage elections, some kind of parliament, which will be unlikely to prove stable.
Of course we want to see, and encourage, a mass movement, and a powerful working class leading it. In any democratic opening there may be chances for working class organisation which should be seized upon; a task of solidarity will be to help the workers' movement grow. In the first place we have to fight the likelihood of yet another devastating war, still more death and destruction rained down on the Iraqi people - no more likely than before to bring an end to their suffering at the same time as it destroys their under-resourced hospitals and schools. In any event, big changes are likely in Iraq in the near future.