Alan Johnson argues that the left needs to build a solidarity campaign with the Iraqi people not an 'anti-war' movement
"My suggestion is as follows. People who opposed the war but with a proper sense of the other considerations, the ones that moved us left-liberal supporters of the war, should be willing to move on. All said and done, they didn't agree with what was done, but what was done removed a scourge and they will recognize that and look to what is now the best possible course forward for the people of Iraq." (Norman Geras at normblog March 5 2004)
I agree. I opposed the war, helping to organise a Stop the War campaign group in South Lakeland and, as an editor of the US socialist journal New Politics (I have since resigned), writing against the war ('Iraq and the Third Camp' can be read at (http://www.wpunj.edu/~newpol/issue35/Johnson35.htm). But I will not be marching on March 20 in London.
The political position some of us held in opposing the war was expressed on the placards we carried aloft as we blocked roads and railway lines, held vigils and organised teach-ins: 'No to War, No to Saddam'. This put us sharply at odds with the national Stop The War Coalition, which refused to make any reference to the plight of the Iraqi people under Saddam. Only one or two speakers at the London demo in February 2003 even mentioned Saddam or the Iraqi people. Worse, Tony Benn denounced the Iraqi opposition as 'CIA stooges' on national television. One could only imagine Saddam's smile at that. The 'No to War! No to Saddam' position meant we were politically obliged to speak and act very differently to the national campaign leadership. I made this speech (reproduced here word for word from my contemporaneous notes) to a school student walkout we organised in South Lakeland). I cite it not to blow my own trumpet but as an example of a run of the mill 'third camp' speech, typical of the kind of thing we were saying at the time:
"The Stop the War Coalition stands with the Iraqi people against the murderous tyrant Saddam Hussein and wants to support in every way their efforts to overthrow Saddam. And you know what: unlike the US and UK governments we always did. We stood with the Iraqi people in the 1960s when the CIA and the US govt helped him to power. We stood with the Iraqi people in the 1970s when the UK and US armed him and traded with him. We stood with the Iraqi people in the 1980s when Saddam invaded Iran and fought a war with mustard gas. At that time the US and UK governments backed and encouraged Iraq in that war as it wanted rid of the Islamic Fundamentalist regime in Tehran. Britain even built a mustard gas plant for Saddam. The same mustard gas plant that Colin Powell said was a reason for us going to war today!
We stood by the Kurdish people when Saddam gassed and murdered 5000 Kurds at Halabja. The US and UK governments issued only feeble protests before Donald Rumsfeld travelled to Baghdad, shook Hussein's hand and asked if he could set up a US trade mission there. Saddam was a tyrant then and there was no protest from London or Washington. Why? Because he was their tyrant. He did what they told him to do. Just as the tyrants of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan are their tyrants today and so are protected and armed by the US and UK. Only when Saddam got too big for his boots did he become a tyrant to overthrow rather than tyrant to back up. So we can say don't lecture us about supporting the Iraqi people you hypocrites!
We are for regime change in Iraq. Now. But regime change from below, by the people. Not regime change from above by cruise missiles and cluster bombs. This is not pie in the sky. How did regime change happen in the old Latin American military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil? Regime Change from Below by popular rebellion! How did regime change happen in the old Stalinist dictatorships? Regime Change from Below by popular rebellion!
So we say make solidarity, give practical support, increase the inspectors, send in human rights monitors, tighten the military sanctions but lift the economic sanctions which have caused according to the UN 500,000 deaths in Iraq since 1990. Lifting the economic sanctions and the people will be able to breathe again, the people will not be reliant upon the Saddam regime for food and so will begin to organise to overthrow Saddam. Join the local Stop the war Coalition and organise for this: 'No to War! No to Saddam! Freedom for the Kurds! Democracy for Iraq!".
Now, the specific arguments I made to the school students that day may be judged right or wrong. The point is that the same politics that motivated the third camp left to oppose the war then mean we should not march with the Stop the War Coalition now. The reasons are three-fold: (a) what the 'anti-war' left has become (b) the new situation on the ground in Iraq, and (c) the political obligations of a third camp socialist.
(a) What the 'anti-war' left has become
The stress we gave to 'regime change from below' never much interested the vast bulk of the anti-war movement. But it was reasonable to say 'well, we need to make this argument as part of the anti-war movement'. I no longer think it is reasonable for us to say that. The 'anti-war' movement by campaigning for an 'immediate end of the occupation' whatever the consequences and, in some cases, declaring itself for 'victory to the resistance' has made itself a Pro-Tyrant force. The size of the demonstration cannot determine our decision to support it. To build the solidarity movement we always wanted we now need a realignment of forces and a rupture with the 'anti-war' left.
There was not one single moment for me when I realised that enough was enough with the 'anti-war' left. Maybe I knew something had snapped on 9/11 itself. After contacting my New York friends to check they were alive, I discovered the SWP (the main organisers of the Stop The War coalition) refused to condemn the attacks. Then the SWP allied with the slick fundamentalists of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), an organisation tied to the fundamentalist Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and began politically apologising for, even promoting, that reactionary religious organisation. Then came Tony Benn and his shameful meeting with Saddam, asking in deferential tones for advice from this Hitlerian figure about how to preserve peace against the 'imperialists'. The furious reaction of David Aaronovitch to Benn's behaviour mirrored my own.
When the war against Saddam's regime began (it was never a 'war on Iraq') I recall those anti-war activists who supported Saddam's Fedayeen thugs, his praetorian guard and the people's tormentors. Some expressed unrestrained glee for a few hours when it looked possible they might inflict real setbacks on the coalition forces.
The near universal indifference of the left to George Galloway's record of close personal and political support for the genocidal dictators, Saddam and Tariq Aziz, should have forced every socialist into a profound rethink about the nature of the 'anti-war' left as a whole. Anyway, it did me. It was to get much worse. Led by the SWP, the left decided to hoist this walking disgrace to the very leadership of it's movement and then create an entire political organisation dedicated to his promotion and election as an MEP. Surely that would be the nadir?
It wasn't. John Pilger and Tariq Ali, both major figures and leaders of the 'anti-war' party, then came out openly with positive declarations of support for the fascistic fundamentalist terrorists and Baathist totalitarians of 'the Resistance' who were massacring their way across Iraq. 'You can't be choosy' said Pilger. 'Anti-Imperialism' said Ali. No criticism of Pilger or Ali was forthcoming from inside the 'anti-war' left when they likened the moloch of the Iraqi 'resistance' to the French resistance fighters who opposed the Nazis.
And then there was the staged pulling down of the statute of Bush in Trafalgar Square as if to say 'Aha! Now we will show you whose statute should REALLY have been pulled down!' Turns out the anti-war movement was not infected with the idea that there was a moral equivalence between Bush and Bin Laden. It was worse. A large chunk really does think Bush is worse. That he, not Osama Bin Laden is, as that nudnik poster has it, 'The Worlds Number 1 Terrorist'. A legitimate and necessary opposition to US foreign policy is being mis-used to minimise or deny or even to indulge the terrorist threat posed by al-Queda and it is a bloody disgrace. I agree with Jean Bethke Elshtain's view that 'Organised killers with global reach now threaten all of us. In the name of universal human morality, and fully conscious of the restrictions and requirements of a just war, we support our government's and our society's, decision to use force of arms against them'.
A precondition for agreement to that statement is an acceptance that al-Queda is real. And the 'anti-war' left is not sure about that. Banners for the 9/11 conspiracy websites were prominently displayed at the Trafalgar Square 'anti-war' protest. These sites push the idea that the US government, and maybe Mossad, planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks. When Michael Meacher, the sacked Labour minister, fronted up for this rubbish to try and recover his left-wing credentials (after sitting meekly in the government for five years without a peep) I roared with laughter. I assumed everyone one else would spot him for the opportunist he was and join in. I even went round making what I thought was a good riposte ('well, at least you have to grant that Rumsfeld has balls of steel to have ordered the attack and then sat waiting for the plane to hit his Pentagon office'). When no one laughed I put it down to my chronic inability to deliver a joke and the left's notorious lack of a sense of humour. But by this point I should have known better. Playing to the mass idiot anti-Americanism of its base more or less the entire left press either supported Meacher or kept a respectful silence! Sadly, he even got front page billing in the Scottish Socialist Party newspaper, Socialist Voice whose columnist, Colin Bell, compared the Iraqi 'resistance' to the World War Two French resistance movement.
But the moment I knew I would not be marching again with the 'anti-war' left came with the capture of Saddam. I was exultant that day. As I enjoyed watching him being humiliated before the world I recalled picketing the Iraqi consulate in the 1980s in Manchester and how the consulate thugs, after taking photographs of us all, emerged to beat up the Iraqi dissidents. And I remembered a photograph of a father and son, Kurds murdered by Saddam's WMD in Halabja, frozen in their tender embrace. Now the bastard would get his! I then discovered the only people who shared my reaction were comrades in Solidarity and the pro-war liberal left (and of course ordinary working class people). No one who honestly studied the reaction of the 'anti-war' left to Saddam's capture could have missed its disappointment and anger (for the reaction of the SWP's John Rees and George Galloway at the Cairo conference see my article in Solidarity 3/44).
As this anger could not be openly admitted it was routinely displaced (John Lister writing in Resistance was typical of this) onto risible outrage at Saddam's dental inspection.
As the terrorism of al-Queda and the Saddam loyalists grows more desperate the left's apologetics just gets worse and worse. The Australian Green Left refused to condemn the bombing of the UN headquarters and Al Queda's massacre of UN staff seeking to rebuild Iraq. The bombing you see was 'anti-imperialist', the UN being a tool of 'imperialism'. The SWP refused to condemn the bombing of the synagogue in Turkey, a nakedly anti-Semitic attack on Jews as Jews.
With the mass slaughter of the Shiite religious pilgrims by the 'resistance' and the 'funny' and 'anti-war' response of Mark Steel in the Independent maybe we should just stop (see the sharp critique of Steel by his fellow Independent writer Johann Hari at his blogsite 'harrysplace').
We now have a Pro-Tyrant left and democratic socialists should draw a line and oppose it and build something else rather than march with it. It is indeed time to move on. But where to?
(b) the new situation in Iraq
The third camp left has to relate the 'No to War, No to Saddam' position we adopted before the war to a radically changed situation. The Saddam regime has been removed from above. A transition to some kind of popular sovereignty and democracy, however flawed, is underway. The labour movement, the women's movement and the organisations of a civil society are blinking into the light. A free press struggles to establish itself but exists. An interim constitution has been signed and national elections are scheduled for early 2005. But the left cannot admit the awkward fact that the central obstacle to a democratic transition is not the coalition but the so-called 'resistance' that is murdering anyone that seeks a stable democratic Iraq beyond the control of the Baath and the terrorists. It murders coalition troops and Iraqi Civil Defence force volunteers (brave women who pull their helmets over their Islamic scarfs and patrol the streets of Baghdad), United Nations workers and NGO staff, police officers and even the mother who runs the electricity sub-station (did you have this woman in mind, John Pilger, or the orphans the killers left behind, when you said 'you cant be choosy'?).
In this new situation the task facing those who stood before the war for a third camp position is not to support the 'resistance'. Nor is it to act as the direct action wing of the Today programme, mimicking John Hurumph-reys banging on and on about the Hutton Report and the JIC and the 45 minutes and the 'dodgy dossier'. The political task is to make urgent solidarity with the progressive forces in Iraq who are working inside the transition process - trade unions, civil society groups, women's groups, democratic political parties and associations -using the breathing space provided by the removal of Saddam to organise their forces and to push a secular egalitarian and democratic agenda of demands. The task is nation-building from below today in such a way that socialism from below becomes a possibility tomorrow. The democratic left should not act in any way to further the return of the Baath, or a decent into civil war. So we should not promote the immediate withdrawal of coalition forces without a political settlement. And the 'anti-war' march on March 20 is palpably about forcing that withdrawal.
Yes, of course the raids on the union offices, the role of giant US corporations, and the nature of the Bush administration show that we should not give our political trust to the Coalition. This is a capitalist transition being driven largely from above by capitalist governments, with all that that implies. But it is progressive compared to a return to Saddam or civil war. In short, we have to understand what the progressive forces inside Iraq have understood, that while a progressive Iraqi political force might emerge by intelligent political struggle under and against the umbrella of a managed transition to sovereignty and democracy, such a force would be, literally, executed under conditions of civil war or Baathist dictatorship.
And something else. We need a movement that does not feel it has to put scare quotes around the word terrorism. The terrorism in Iraq is not that of a national liberation movement. The situation is more like Berlin in late 1945 (a country on its knees, a war over, a tyranny overthrown from outside, a fight for democracy necessarily conducted inside the umbrella provided by the 'occupying' force) than Paris in 1943. About the wider Islamic fundamentalist terrorism of al-Queda the left remains in denial. In January I wrote in Solidarity:
For many left intellectuals and writers the dirty bomb that Al Qaeda was getting closer to creating in its Afghan camps will never be finished and explode in the middle of London or Madrid. The single warhead that if filled with just 140 litres of VX could kill I million people will never be delivered. From the massacre of 'westerners' at Luxor, to the massacre of Jews in Turkey, parts of the left are in denial (see Solidarity 3/44)).
It is to be hoped that the bombs, devastating but not 'dirty', that exploded in Madrid less than two months later, killing 200, will make some think again.
( c) The obligations of a third camp socialist
Who are our responsibilities to and what are they? One of the architects of third camp socialism, Max Shachtman, wrote this in 1951:
We are opposed to such defeats of the bourgeoisie whose consequences are, and cannot but be, a disaster and an inferno of exploitation for the working class. We do not exist to see that revenge is taken upon the bourgeoisie for its social crimes, but to see that the working class emancipates itself from all class rule (...) We do not for a moment suspend the class struggle, even in wartime. But, not being Stalinists and not being cretins, we do not prosecute it in such a way as to produce a defeat of the government by Stalinism. We are for the working class defeating the bourgeoisie in the class war and that is all we work for. We do not work for it in such a way as assures the defeat of the bourgeoisie by a reaction that would crush the proletariat itself".
We should contest the course of the transition. We should aim for a democratic socialist force to dominate the new Iraq. Of course. But if that is what we want we should not be building an 'anti-war' movement for the immediate withdrawal of the coalition. We should be building a solidarity campaign to assist the progressive forces in Iraq in their demands for free and secure elections, full civil and human rights, a secular constitution, justice for the victims of the Baath, and a massive programme of economic aid and support in reconstruction. We can do this in an alliance with left wing and liberal forces who supported the war as well as with those who opposed it. Such a solidarity campaign could contribute to the political realignment of the democratic left that we so desperately need. It could be a means to challenge the miseducation of an entire generation of young people by the inchoate 'anti-imperialists'.
Such a rational and democratic left can only be built in through practical solidarity with the progressive forces in Iraq. Much of the existing left - incoherent anti-imperialists rather then democratic socialists, unable to condemn the most foul terrorist outrages without excusing them in the same breathe - is finished for that kind of progressive politics. It is time to move on.