Q & A on Israel-Iran

Submitted by martin on 12 September, 2008 - 12:26 Author: Martin Thomas

Q. So you've been catching up on the email and web traffic around Iran-Israel, most of which you missed at the time because you were immersed in organising your move back to London from Australia?

A. Yes.

Q. There's a big debate about whether we should oppose an Israeli attack on Iran, or how much we should oppose it, isn't there?

A. No! On that score, the whole thing is a matter of furphies and sideshows. The real issues are elsewhere. In reading through all the stuff, I see the real issues heavily obscured by a blizzard of misrepresentation and misunderstanding. I think I can see how and why that happened.

Q. OK, we'll come back to that. But what are those real issues which you see?

A. First, the actual background for the tension between Israel and Iran.
Second, that in analysing the Iranian regime (or anything else) we cannot deduce what will happen from abstract economic rationality.
Third, that while the concept "regional imperialism" is an important one, we cannot use it in a "Linnaean" or cod-Hegelian way.
Fourth, whether agitation should rule analysis, or vice versa.

Q. What about that fourth point?

A. That's quickly explained. A lot of the objections to the original article in Solidarity 3/136 amount to saying that it would not be suitable as an agitational leaflet to counter a blast of Israeli chauvinism blowing towards an Israeli attack on Israel.
Obviously it would not be suitable. It was not intended as such. The text originated as sub-editing additions to another article (also published in Solidarity 3/136, on the back page); the additions grew and became "lumpy", and the comrades thought it better to separate it off as a "discussion article" (so labelled).
A "discussion article" so labelled is not an agitational leaflet. And a demand that nothing other than agitational text be presented is especially out of place here. It is subordinating analysis not merely to agitation, but in fact to pretend-agitation.
In the relevant timescale, between now and January 2009, there is no conceivable way that anything we write could build an agitational campaign in Israel.
In Britain, all sectors of opinion anywhere near within earshot of us are certain to oppose an Israeli attack on Iran. So is the British government.
Trotsky presented the tasks of Marxists in these words. Note the order! "To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one's program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives..."
On an issue like this, where we can only comment from afar, the first tasks are essential: "To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names..."
To pretend that we have to set that aside in the name of "being bold when the hour for action arrives", as if some decisive action is open to us in this hour on this issue, is a fiction. To "seek the line of least resistance", and just to go with the flow of all liberal and leftish opinion in Britain, without questioning the assumptions mingled into it, would be wrong.

Q. Which tacit assumptions?

A. Those which mean, for example, that the SWP can push through a ban on local Stop The War meetings getting into "debates on the nature of the Iranian regime", i.e. criticism of that regime.

Q. Oh, that's just the SWP! You're being like the mouse who thinks there is no animal bigger than the cat.

A. No, it is not just the SWP. It is a vast range of the left in the widest sense, spreading out to the not-very-active Guardian-reader type, and, of course, a big range of the right too. A lot of people on the very broadly-defined left are "in private" highly critical of the Iranian regime, but think that what being "left-wing" on the issue means is a duty to "talk down" what the Iranian government does, to emphasise that the Iranian government is not as bad as it is made out to be. A valuable thing about Sean's discussion piece is that it has "flushed out" some of that.

Q. But surely that's right? When the Israeli press seems to be building up towards an attack on Iran, surely we should make it our business to bend the stick in the other direction?

A. We are not in Israel. Solidarity cannot be a direct counter to the Israeli press. In this case, there is scarcely any question of agitation. To be sure, I would be one of the regulars if AWL were to revive the weekly protest pickets of the Israeli embassy which we've held on and off for six or seven years now, and one of the themes on our placards now would be opposition to an attack on Iran. But that is not the issue!
Agitational leaflets often can be, or even should be, "one-sided", fading out parts of the picture in order to highlight others. But no solid socialist movement can be built on the basis of agitation alone. To attempt that would amount to replacing political education by ideological manipulation.
Agitation must be based on, extracted from, more comprehensive explanations, which in turn are based on thorough examinations of reality. Thus the process of agitation and drawing large numbers of people into activity on single issues is or should be a tributary of the building of a permanent, structured socialist movement with an all-round education.

Q. So the demand to limit discussion to what is suitable for an agitational leaflet - or rather, what would be suitable if we were in fact producing mass agitational leaflets for Tel Aviv - "dumbs down" socialist politics?

A. Yes. And this is not just the usual business of the general catchpenny-agitational bias, on all issues, of groups like the SWP.
On another issue, there would not be the same horror at any discussion which complicates the agitational storyline. The Israel issue is special.
The fiction that we are surrounded by overwhelming "pro-Zionist" opinion is often used (and much more widely than by groups like the SWP) to impose the demand that our commentary on Israel must be narrowed down and limited. In fact, of course, in Britain, and in varying degrees in most other countries, we are surrounded by a very broad current of opinion which is highly critical of Israel; on the activist left, by opinion which is downright Israelophobic.
(For figures from an opinion survey, see http://tinyurl.com/3a2sxu).

Q. All right. What's the relevance of all that here? That Israel may soon attack Iran is not an "Israelophobic" fiction! And, by the way, before you go on to that, why do you say that the relevant timescale here is "between now and January 2009"?

A. The immediate time-scale is determined by two things. On the one side, the growing very high probability that the Bush-Cheney US administration will not bomb Iran, despite all its threats to do so; and the failure (so far) of the EU's efforts to curb Iran by diplomacy. On the other, the coming US presidential election.
After January 2009, Israel may well have to deal with a US president solidly committed to negotiating with Iran in order to extricate, or part-extricate, the US from Iraq. Latest reports on the "security agreement" being negotiated between the US and Maliki are that it will stipulate that US troops be out of Iraqi cities by June 2009 and then mostly out of Iraq by 2011. That can only be managed by some degree of tacit cooperation between the USA and Iran.
Before January 2009, the Israeli government can deal with a US administration which may well give tacit support, or support-by-faint-condemnation, to an Israeli attack on Iran, and which may be happy to leave the unpleasant repercussions of such an attack to a new US administration to deal with. Some of the members of the Bush-Cheney administration probably regret the (probable) decision not to bomb Iran, and will be glad to see Israel do it.
That's why there is talk about an Israeli attack on Iran as a short-term prospect (between now and January). It is not, by the way, that anyone, the Israeli government included, thinks an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel may be imminent. On the contrary, if the Israeli government thought that, then it would be far "too late" for pre-emptive action.

Q. I return to the point: that Israel may soon attack Iran is not an "Israelophobic" fiction! What is there to say about that other than that it would be a bad thing?

A. We should also understand the background, namely the rise of political Islam, and Iran as a power-centre of political Islam. Iran's clerical-fascist regime has been able to sustain itself for nearly 30 years. It has gained influence in strong political-Islamist movements in other countries. Remarkably, that includes some mostly-Sunni movements, such as Hamas in Palestine, as well as Hezbollah and the Shia militia/parties in Iraq. It also has a strong alliance with Syria. (Syria is majority Sunni, but many of the top leadership belong to a maverick Shia sect, the Alawi. Senior Iranian clerics have decreed the Alawi to be Shia, and some Alawi clerics study in Qom).
Thanks to the unintended consequences of the USA's wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, Iran has become the dominant power in western Afghanistan and southern Iraq.
The crumbling of the regime, which looked under Khatami as if it might get well underway, has been partly halted. The regime's base of fervent ideological supporters has been revitalised.
For political Islam, "Zionism" is the world's greatest evil. It is a chief obstacle to the consolidation of the Islamic world as a great power inspired by correct Islamic doctrine.
Islamist Iran, moreover, thanks to its role in international political Islam, now comes to close quarters with Israel in the sense that movements influenced by it, Hezbollah and Hamas, fight Israel directly and have aspirations to conquer Israel and dominate its territory.
An Iranian government dedicated to "Death to Israel!", and with nuclear weapons, would be a serious threat to Israel.

Q. Sounds to me like quibbling. Either you're saying that all that justifies an Israeli attack on Iran - and you're not saying that - or it's just vague talking around the issue in order to soften opposition to that Israeli attack.

A. Either the stuff about the development of the Iranian regime is true, or it is not. If it is true, then it is important, even you think it agitationally inconvenient.
There is no difficulty about understanding the background facts about the development of Iran and simultaneously opposing an Israeli attack.
But a political difficulty does arise if we do not understand - or mandate silence - on those facts. If the possible or probable imminent Israeli attack on Iran is just a manifestation of Israel's generic imperialist aggressiveness (or, as for example the Weekly Worker would have it, just a catspaw operation for the USA, to open the way for the USA to "bomb Iran into the stone age"), then it follows that Iran's possible drive for nuclear weapons is of no consequence in the matter. We might not be positively in favour of those nuclear weapons, but it is unimportant to oppose them. That is a wrong conclusion.

Q. But the article in Solidarity 3/136 exaggerated Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.

A. I don't see that. The article just bases itself on it not being certain that work on an Iranian nuclear bomb has "definitively ended".
Yes, the Iranian government is not as extreme as the Taliban. US intelligence reckons that it has stopped developing nuclear weapons, at least for the moment. If it develops nuclear weapons, it will still not be rational Iranian ruling-class policy to use them; etc.... All that may be true, as far as it goes.
Maybe we should assess the probability of the Iranian government developing and using nuclear weapons in the coming years as 2% rather than 10%. But why isn't a 2% threat a serious one? Why should we consider it "left-wing" to talk it down?

Q. At the start you said something about not using the concept of "regional imperialism" in a "Linnaean" way. What do you mean by that? Is it just a bit of special pleading to get away from the facts about the imperialist nature of Israel?

A. No. Israel is imperialistic in its subjugation of the Palestinians. But to work backwards from that fact to slot Israel into the general category of "imperialism", and then to deduce that everything that Israel does is an emanation from the essence of "imperialism", is false reasoning.
For example, David Broder sees the essence of any Israeli attack on Iran in the near future as "the Israeli government's effort to cling onto its status as the leading regional power by force", and other people have picked up on that sort of idea.
Just the sort of thing a generic imperialist state would do, of course; but not an accurate account of this particular reality.

Q. Why not?

A. Israel is not the leading regional power! Israeli capital does not dominate the Arab economies; in fact it is largely excluded from them. Israeli embassies are not great power centres in Arab capitals; most of them have no such embassies. Israel has high military and other technology, to be sure, but it is a million miles from being the leading power in the Arab world!
Let alone in some broader region that also includes Iran... Not even the most aggressive Israeli chauvinist could dream of Israel being able to dominate Iran.
As "regional-imperialist powers", Israel and Iran have different regions. Israel dominates brutally over the West Bank and Gaza, and would like to dominate southern Lebanon. Iran wants to be the dominant power in the Gulf, and a leading power in the Islamic world.
Iran has had no part in any of the wars between Arab states and Israel - 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982.
On crude "objective" geo-political calculations, Israel and Iran should be natural allies, in the same way as Israel and Turkey are. Both have competitive tensions with the Arab bloc of nations - much larger than either Israel or Iran - which they border from different sides.
When the Shah ruled Iran, in fact, Iran and Israel had relatively warm relations. Even after Khomeiny's victory, during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Israel supplied Iran with weapons. Israel didn't want a comprehensive victory for Iran, but even less did it want Iraq to come out of the war strengthened.
What has changed things is not any fantasy of the Israeli government that it can extend the range of Israeli-dominated Muslim-populated land from the West Bank through to the borders of Pakistan, but the rise of Islamist Iran and world political-Islamist movements as a power.

Q. So you think the imperialist nature of Israel has nothing to do with it?

A. My article in Solidarity 3/136 pointed out that some Israeli advocates of attacking Iran positively relish the prospect of Iran retaliating. They think the military balance would ensure that the retaliation could only do limited damage, and at the same time it would greatly strengthen Israel's political position. It could serve as excellent cover for a drastic drive by Israel against the Palestinians, maybe including large deportations; or for a new Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
We are certainly not going to trust the Israeli government in advance if it says that an attack is only to hit an Iranian nuclear-weapon-development site. It may be like that (as the attacks on Syria and Iraq seem to have been), but we will not trust them.
All that is very different from presenting an Israeli attack on Iran now as just an emanation of generic "Israeli imperialism".

Q. But a full-scale war between Israel and Iran would be a war for regional dominance. It would be a war between rival imperialisms, as the AWL 2008 conference document said.

A. Such a full-scale war, as distinct from an exchange of bombing raids, missiles, and Iranian-sponsored suicide-bomb attacks on Israeli targets, is improbable on both sides. By waging full-scale war on Iran, Israel would push all the Arab states, including those now heavily at odds with Iran, into alliance with Iran. And Iran does not have the military might to wage a full-scale war against Israel from a distance.

Q. Where does Linnaeus come into this?

A. Linnaeus made a great contribution to biological science by initiating the systematic classification of living things into species, genera, and so on. We need classification in social science, too. But we should not proceed by classifying social formations into categories such as "imperialist" and then deducing everything as an emanation of the essence of the summary category which it comes under.
That method was specifically rebuffed by Marx and Engels in a section of their book "The Holy Family", where they ridiculed Hegel's "speculative" dialectics. The speculative philosopher, they said, would start by saying: "I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of 'Fruit'." He would then reconstruct the detailed character of each fruit by deduction from the concept of Fruit. "'The Fruit'", he would declare, "is not dead, undifferentiated, motionless, but a living, self-differentiating, moving essence... In the speculative way of speaking, this operation is called comprehending Substance as Subject, as an inner process, as an Absolute Person, and this comprehension constitutes the essential character of Hegel's method".
Israel, imperialist? Yes. But it does not follow that all its detailed actions are emanations from the general concept of imperialism.

Q. You yourself say that Iran does not have the military might to wage a full-scale war against Israel from a distance. So there is no immediate threat to Israel, and any Israeli attack on Iran will indeed be a gratuitous manifestation of Israeli imperialism!

A. The talk in Israel of a "pre-emptive" strike arises from the idea that at present Israel could hit nuclear targets in Iran with relatively little and controllable retaliation, but maybe in a few years' time it won't be able to.

Q. But the talk of an Iranian threat to Israel is all a beat-up! Marxism teaches us that economic interests always decide the basic course of events, and ideological elements are very secondary. It would never be rational for the Iranian regime to court suicide by a nuclear attack on Israel.

A. To discuss the reach and ambitions of the Iranian regime simply in terms of the profit-maximisation of Iranian capital, with no reference to its place in the international network of political Islam or to Islamic clerical-fascist ideology, would be as foolish as discussing the reach and ambitions of the USSR in the old days with no reference to Stalinist ideology or to the network of Stalinist parties.

Q. However Islamic, the Iranian government will not want to commit suicide. Quite likely it won't develop nuclear weapons, and, even if it does, we can be pretty sure it won't use them. It's not a big worry.

A. Of course the Iranian government will be influenced by all sorts of "pragmatic" considerations, and it is far from certain that it will actually develop and use nuclear weapons. But to dismiss the possibility as something with no practical implications for today is another matter.
Take a moment to think through the project of nuclear-bombing Israel from the standpoint of someone like Ahmedinejad. A couple of bombs could panic the surviving Jews into fleeing to the USA and Europe. (I don't think they would; but the idea is not absurd, and would seem more convincing to someone like Ahmedinejad, with a low opinion of Jews. I can remember a discussion in the 1980s with an Israeli Trotskyist - in general terms, a sane, educated, secular person - who insisted that the only long-term outcome in Palestine would and must be for most of the Jews to quit. He himself had moved to France).
If the Jews flee, then (so Ahmedinejad can reasonably calculate) Iranian-allied groups, Hezbollah and Hamas, can dominate the whole of Palestine.
The US would retaliate and, for sure, kill a lot of Iranians. But would it necessarily be able to overthrow the clerical-fascist regime? Iraq proves that the USA would not have the resources to rule the whole of Iran by direct US military authority. The US would hope to install the monarchists to replace the clerics. But would the monarchists be able to do that, if they appeared to the population as coming in as agents of Israel? The monarchists might even refuse to try.
Even if the USA did overthrow the current Iranian regime, some Islamist-oriented regime might well survive. Certainly world political Islam would survive. In fact it would be greatly strengthened.
Would the individual Iranian leaders who launched the attack be killed? Maybe. But think. We in the AWL are all secular-minded people, yet any of us would gladly risk death if we thought that by doing so we could bring down world capitalism for ever. Why wouldn't Ahmedinejad, or someone similar, be prepared to risk death if he thought that he could go down in history as the man who ended what he sees as the world's greatest evil, Zionism? Even apart from the fact that he is an ardent devotee of a culture in which the glory of martyrdom is central?
I do not argue that it is certain that the Iranian regime will develop and use nuclear weapons, nor that what the Iranian government will do can be "read off" directly from its ideology and rhetoric. I do argue that we shouldn't dismiss that ideology. Or, at the very least, that we can't be sure we can dismiss it.
To dismiss it entirely would be, in a perverse way, "Islamophobic" - to take a condescending attitude to the Islamic clerical-fascists, assuming that they are incapable of taking their own ideas seriously.

Q. Governments don't do irrational things. Hitler has been cited as a counter-example, but that is too extreme a case to have any relevance to Iran today.

A. Not so. Was it ever rational for Milosevic to think that he could conquer Croatia? Was it rational for Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990? A lot of the things Stalin or Mao did had little economic rationality. Obviously the majority of the Chinese ruling class thought the Cultural Revolution was crazy; and yet it took ten years for them to force a change in course... There are many other examples.

Q. This doesn't sound very Marxist to me.

A. Engels wrote: "According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into
saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase..."
"Economic factors" cannot make history directly. They shape the options, the constraints, and the thinking of the women and men who do make history. "We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions... The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure - political forms of the class struggle and its results... - also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form".
Antonio Gramsci explained further:
"It often happens that people combat historical economism in the belief that they are attacking historical materialism... As Engels wrote, many people find it very convenient to think that they can have the whole of history and all political and philosophical wisdom in their pockets at little cost and no trouble, concentrated into a few short formulas. They forget that the thesis which asserts that men become conscious of fundamental conflicts on the terrain of ideologies is not psychological or moralistic in character, but structural and epistemological [i.e. economic structuring "works" not "by itself", but only by shaping human activities]; and they form the habit of considering politics, and hence history, as a continuous marche de dupes, a competition in conjuring and sleight of hand. 'Critical' activity is reduced to the exposure of swindles, to creating scandals, and to prying into the pockets of public figures...
"It is necessary to combat economism not only in the theory of historiography, but also and especially in the theory and practice of politics. In this field, the struggle can and must be carried on by developing the concept of hegemony...", i.e. of the political forms through which ruling classes, within their fundamental determining economic structure, develop the running of society.
"Confronted with... events, economism asks the question: 'who profits directly from the initiative under consideration?', and replies with a line of reasoning which is as simplistic as it is fallacious: the ones who profit directly are a certain fraction of the ruling class... This sort of infallibility, therefore, comes very cheap. It not only has no theoretical significance - it has only minimal political implications or practical efficacy...
"In the search for historical connections it makes no distinction between what is 'relatively permanent' and what is a passing fluctuation, and by an economic fact it means the self-interest of an individual or small group, in an immediate... sense. In other words, it... assumes motives of mean and usurious self-interest..."
In the actual case, the abstract formula "rival regional imperialisms" simply does not explain the tension between Iran and Israel. The key to that tension is the rise of political Islam and of the Iranian regime as a centre of political Islam.

Q. All this is talking round the issue! The fact is that the debate started with David Broder criticising Sean for not opposing an Israeli attack on Iran.

A. David's article tells us a lot more about David's state of mind than about Iran and Israel, or about what Sean actually wrote. As the current paper says: "Of course, we do not advocate, nor will we endorse or take political responsibility for, an Israeli attack on Iran: we are against such an action". Both my article on the back page of Solidarity 3/136, and Sean's discussion piece inside it, made that clear to any halfway loyal reader.
David had taken part in the conversations in the office on the discussion piece, and had made suggestions which Sean tried to accommodate.
Then, in a different state of mind - for whatever reason, but not because anyone in the AWL had done anything nasty to him - he wrote a completely off-beam diatribe for the website.
Of course, we can understand there's a difference between such idiotic stuff written by an upset 19 year old, and the similar stuff which used to be written against us by calculating, cynical old Healyite ideologues.
Trouble is, calculating, cynical ideologues - not the Healyites this time, but Weekly Worker - immediately seized on David's huff, and comrades were suddenly thrown into a demagogy-storm which, by sheer volume and noise, the Weekly Worker and their like were partly able to define in their own terms.
On my reading, even some of our comrades who have made very sensible contributions have had their perception of the issues somewhat skewed by the noise.
But for any rational discussion, David's stuff, and the WW's stuff, are simply beside the point - noises off. They are, in Wolfgang Pauli's memorable phrase, "not even wrong". Anyone discussing Iran-Israel on the assumption that there is something worth debating in David's piece doesn't understand what's going on.

Q. Well, just a while back you "debated" something from David's piece, his assertion that an Israeli attack on Iran would be a matter of "the Israeli government's effort to cling onto its status as the leading regional power by force".

A. In David's article, that is just an unexplained assumption. It's important because some comrades making an attempt to reason have picked up the idea.
Read what David wrote a few days later. This was after an apparently friendly conversation with Sean - one of many, a routine thing - about David's sympathy for the ideas of the 1960s "Solidarity" group. Oddly, the discussion took place after David had posted his diatribe on the website, but before Sean knew of that posting: David made no attempt to raise the Iran issue in the conversation. David went away from that discussion about the 1960s "Solidarity" group to write:
"Sean Matgamna... has utter contempt for any idea of workers' control or management other than the state being ruled by 'The Party'; has no understanding at all of the difference between trade union participation on company boards and workers expropriating their bosses and running their workplaces themselves in a free association of producers; calls himself a 'state socialist' and roundly denounces... mass working-class action to seize power..." He "dismisses Hegel and Dunayevskaya out of hand because he has not read any of their works (he regards dialectics as 'mysticism')..."
David was plainly not in a state of mind to read or listen to what Sean said or wrote in any loyal or rational way. And David's stuff on Iran-Israel showed it as clearly as the ranting about Sean "denouncing mass working-class action to seize power".
He claimed that Sean "dishonestly zigzags between empathising with Israeli hawks and using figleaf, weasel words to avoid openly 'advocating' an Israeli strike against Iran in advance...
"Sean... is far from condemning the Israeli government's effort to cling onto its status as the leading regional power by force: if he realises that such a bombing run would hamper the possibility of workers in the region 'uniting to fight for a socialist Middle East', he certainly doesn't show it...
"Sean confuses what is 'rational' in the interests of Israeli imperialism and great-power realpolitik with what is 'rational' in the interests of humanity...
"Sean asks us to see the situation from Israel's point of view - 'In Israeli eyes the facts and alternatives here are stark' - but is clearly talking about the alternatives as seen in the IDF leadership, ignoring the question of how an attack would be viewed through the eyes of any class-conscious Israeli...
"Sean does not want to 'advocate' or 'endorse' an attack: but this is just playing with words, and clearly given the tone of the piece and the fact that he is so keen to defend the rationale for an attack which is not yet on the cards the article can only be read as offering justification for Olmert et al...
"It is impossible to just mix and match between fighting for revolution and playing at imperialist geopolitics like Sean does..."
And more of the same: in short, David's assertion is that Sean wants us to empathise with the Israeli army chiefs! It is just raving, similar to or worse than the stuff the Healyites use to fling around in their heyday.

Q. Maybe David exaggerated and got upset, but that must have been because he was badly treated by the EC. He was asked for a loyalty oath!

A. No, he wasn't! All that is invention. This nasty old world contains other reasons for people getting upset and "going off on one" politically besides bad behaviour by the AWL EC!

Q. Isn't it a problem that neither article in Solidarity 3/136 used the word "oppose"?

A. Why do they have to? I would refuse to click heels to the baying anti-Israeli mob around us, and say: oh yes, sorry sir, how remiss of us, of course before discussing anything else we must state that we "oppose" anything Israel does!
In the hypothetical case that Israel carried out an attack on Iranian nuclear-weapon development similar to those it is reported to have carried out against Syria in September 2007 and June 1981 (http://tinyurl.com/yw7hz and http://tinyurl.com/2azlte), it would be wrong to denounce it as "imperialist aggression". (No-one complained that we didn't denounce "imperialist aggression" after the Syrian attack). That doesn't mean we positively approve the attack, even after the event: we wouldn't trust the Israeli generals' account of an attack. But we don't say that what Israel may have done, axiomatically it must have been wrong.
In any argument about whether Israel should attack Iran (i.e. in advance of the event), we are obviously against it. Despite the good reasons Israel has for fearing Iran, anything Israel did would be done not just by "Israel" but by the Israeli government, in its own way, for its own interests, with its own accompaniments, and so on.

Q. So what is the argument about?

A. In the name of what do we oppose Israeli action? We should not "go with the flow" around us, which denounces all and any Israeli military action as ipso facto imperialist (i.e. denies that Israel has any right to defend itself), and either is uncritical of Iran or feels that it is a point of "anti-imperialist" honour to insist that Iran is pretty much harmless.

Q. We should emphasise the danger from right-wing crazies in the Israeli government as much as that from right-wing crazies in the Iranian government. We should uphold Iran's right to defend itself as much as Israel's.

A. We have warned in the past about things the Israeli right-wing really may do, like, under cover of suitable circumstances, trying to drive large numbers of Palestinians out of the Occupied Territories ("population transfer"). We were right to warn, even though that hasn't happened and may not happen.
But the postulated symmetry does not hold. Synagogues in Israel do not conclude their Saturday sessions by having the congregations chant "death to Iran" in the same way that, for decades, clerics have frequently led "death to Israel" chants after Friday prayers in Iran. The main forces of the Israeli right-wing have a long record of being brutally (sometimes short-sightedly, to be sure) "realistic" about their military and diplomatic stances.

Q. The articles should have opposed the Israeli attack on Iran by calling on the Israeli workers to refuse to move munitions, while also calling on Iranian workers to sabotage Iran's nuclear programme. The failure to make such calls to action shows that the writers see politics, for now, as just a matter of speculating on "lesser evils" within current geopolitics, not as a matter of rousing workers to action.

A. That workers in Iran are able to stage some wage strikes and demonstrations, despite harassment and illegality, and to get some international campaigns for release of jailed trade unionists, is a great thing. We are right to publicise it.
That there is a legal trade union movement in Israel, which has organised several general strikes against neo-liberal economic policies, is also a great thing. We are right to publicise that, too.
Of course we argue for workers across the Middle East to unite on a programme of socialism and consistent democracy, centrally including self-determination for all the minority nationalities.
But the Iranian workers' movement is still illegal and heavily harassed! The Israeli workers' movement is deeply submerged in Israeli nationalism, and has no independent political voice! To propose quasi-revolutionary workers' action (sabotage, effectively breaking-up, of the state machines) in both countries as the immediate answer, between now and January 2009, to the tension between Iran and Israel, is to replace politics by invocation in the style of Workers' Power.
Imagine if we applied that sort of method to any other political problem! Take for example Ireland during the IRA's long war. "Workers in the Catholic communities should sabotage the IRA's arms dumps, and workers in the Protestant communities should do the same with the UDA's and UVF's. Meanwhile workers in the South should break up the Dublin capitalist state machine. All those groups of workers, across Ireland, should join together in workers' militias to build a workers' state.
"Oh, and anyone who talks about anything else is just a faintheart who has retreated from active working-class advocacy into geopolitical speculation..."
Actually the Healyites did propose something not too far from that approach in 1969. But we derided them. And we were right.

Q. OK, so the breaking-up of the two state machines is not something we can sensibly make an immediate "call to action". But unless we start calling for workers' intervention now, we drift into accepting bourgeois options as the only ones.

A. That would be a relevant point if anyone among us were proposing that we endorse an Israeli attack on Iran on the grounds that the threat from Ahmedinejad has to be dealt with somehow and this is the only way available.
But we have explained on many other issues why we do not subordinate ourselves to bourgeois "lesser evils" even if we cannot immediately "call on" the workers to create a better third alternative; why we fight to prepare the Third Camp even on an ideological and "propaganda" level when that is all that is immediately within reach.
We cannot do that sensibly by presenting the programme of working-class internationalism in the form of utterly unrealistic "calls to action" from afar.

Q. Shouldn't the articles then be all about positive action to create that Third Camp, rather than analysis of the forces currently in presence?

A. The Third Camp cannot be created just by repeating invocations to workers - "be the Third Camp"! It cannot be created other than by political education. And to educate politically, you first have to analyse, to know.
A "dumbing down" in which the only analysis permitted of geopolitical developments would be uniform condemnation of all that exists by comparison with an invoked future of united international revolutionary working-class action would make it impossible for revolutionaries to orient themselves.
Hegel - the real Hegel, not the Disneyfied Hegel found among the Dunayevskayaites - had apt words for this sort of thinking:
"To pit this single assertion, that 'in the Absolute all is one', against the organised whole of determinate and complete knowledge, or of knowledge which at least aims at and demands complete development – to give out its Absolute as the night in which, as we say, all cows are black – that is the very naïveté of emptiness of knowledge".
Marx and Engels certainly didn't think that revolutionaries could orient without sober "geopolitical" analysis of the grey and white patches on actual "cows". Read, for example, Engels' pamphlet "Po and Rhine", http://tinyurl.com/4m9poq. My point here, just to make it clear, is not that I think that everything Engels wrote in "Po and Rhine" was right. It is that the approach which would exclude essaying any analysis (whatever the details) of the sort in that pamphlet is not in line with Marx and Engels.

Q. So you think some of the comrades who have polemicised against Sean's article are ultra-left?

A. Not really. I don't think that if they had control of our press, those comrades would actually cover all political developments by auto-commentary, whenever anything happens in Ruritania: "For revolutionary workers' action to break up the state machine in Ruritania! Anyone who talks about anything else is just a faintheart!"
No, it's not like that. The "for revolutionary workers' action to break up the state machine" stuff functions, not as an actual recommendation for public agitation, but as a private sort of body-suit. It gives licence to "follow the line of least resistance", to go along with whatever negative catchcries are popular around us, "troops out of Iraq" or "no to Israeli imperialism against Iran", by the alleged assurance that the "call-on-the-workers" body-suit insulates from all the actual positive meanings of those catchcries. We license ourselves by assuring ourselves, privately, that our "troops out of Iraq", or whatever, is utterly different from anyone else's, because our small-print meaning for it is revolutionary workers' action which will simultaneously defeat the sectarian militias (or the Iranian nuclear programme, or whatever).

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