The SWP and the Iran-Iraq war: the sudden shift to super-anti-imperialism

Submitted by dalcassian on 3 September, 2013 - 11:55

In 1988 the SWP suddenly became very 'anti-imperialist'. It became a loud cheerleader for what it sees as progressive or revolutionary nationalisms.

It still talks of socialism and class struggle, but now these are proposed as merely the best means to secure the greater nationalist end. It fiercely supports Iraq in the Gulf War. It insists fanatically that it is not even worth thinking about an appeal to the Israeli working class, that Israel must be destroyed, and that a 'two-state' solution in Palestine is worthless even as an interim measure.

The war, which began in September 1980, is between two reactionary governments. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein-a brutal one-party state notorious for its barbaric treatment of the non-Arab Kurdish minority-hoped to score a quick victory over the Iranian 'Islamic Republic' and secure regional authority for itself. This it failed to do, but in the absence of victory, continuation of the war at least provided a basis on which to whip up patriotism against the 'Persian enemy' and stem the tide of opposition.

For the deeply reactionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini the war served a similar function: a permanent backdrop for stirring up nationalist emotions; a permanent cudgel with which to beat his own 'unpatriotic' opposition.

It has been a war fought with the most terrible methods: poison gas used by Iraq against Iran; 'human waves' of helpless sacrificial soldiers used by Iran; the bombings of cities; and so on. If the justice of a war can be judged from its methods, the Gulf War has been one of the most unjust.

Much of the left that initially supported Iran-whose regime, however reactionary, was the product of one of the most immense popular revolutions in history, in 1979-had sobered up after a couple of years or so. Those that hadn't-like the American Socialist Workers' Party-argued for support for Iran on the grounds of 'anti-imperialism': Iran represented the rising tide of the world revolution whose progressive core was reflected in US imperialism's unbridled hostility; Iraq was merely imperialism's proxy. In such a view, nothing exists but 'imperialism' and 'anti-imperialism' in various terrestrial manifestations.

More recently, events in the Gulf have seen many sections of the left who did sober up-and even some who were never drunk in the first place-fall in behind Iran, forsaking their earlier understanding. For the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), support for Iran is now dictated by the policy of the US, and in particular by the presence in the Gulf of US ships and the beginnings of direct military conflict. For the SWP this means it is a whole new ball game. A US (and other imperialist) military presence, plus clear imperialist support for one side-Iraq-dictated support for Iran, meaning the advocacy of Iranian military victory. To fail to advocate Iranian military victory is to allow an imperialist victory by default. If you don't want an imperialist victory-a major set-back for anti-imperialists in every part of the world, you must want Iran to win.

This whole approach is a long way from the Marxist policy. It is not a political approach at all; it starts out not from what is politically right and wrong, but from military considerations: it stands the Marxist policy on its head. What would the pro-Iran policy mean politically in the Gulf War? In other words, how would its advocates argue? What would they say?

Iranian socialists, according to this policy, would say to Iraqi workers and peasants at the front: Because your government is supported by the US; because there are American ships in the Gulf; because the victory of your government and the US would be a "blow to anti-imperialists across the world"; because of these things we no longer appeal to you to join with us so that together we can overthrow both Saddam and Khomeini; as of now, our war - that is, Khomeini's war which we have opposed for the last seven years - is justified. As of now, therefore, this is a war worth dying for; and, of course, a war worth killing for. As of now, we will support this war against Iraq. And what should Iraqi socialists say? Because the Iranian war is 'anti-imperialist', they are justified in fighting it - in dying, and in killing us for it. No longer should the workers and oppressed join together to overthrow Saddam and Khomeini - just Saddam. What reason are Iranian and Iraqi socialists supposed to give for this positive support for Iran? Purely that Iran is 'against' imperialism. There is no positive reason at all. There is no issue of national liberation. There are oppressed nations involved, notable the Kurds, who form an oppressed minority in both Iran and Iraq. Their interest is clearly in fighting against the 'imperialism' of both Teheran and Baghdad. There is no cause of democracy and progress served by Iran's war-any more than Iraq's.

There is no reason, therefore, to support Iran, and a consistent Marxist policy should be for the withdrawal of US and other ships (and a campaign in the US and elsewhere to get them to withdraw); and continued opposition to both sides in the Gulf War. The SWP do provide a second line of argument, by way of a peculiar analogy with the Spanish Civil War - according to which, socialists give 'military' but not 'political' support to Khomeini until such time as they are in a 'military' position strong enough to overthrow him.

But what was happening in Spain in 1936-39? A fascist insurrection tried to overthrow the bourgeois-democratic Popular Front government. In resistance, a massive revolutionary movement mobilised to try to crush the fascists - a movement that at times came close to working class power. For Marxists this posed a concrete political question. The revolutionary movement - which included mass organisations of anarchists and semi-Trotskyists - was politically immature, and continued to support the Popular Front. The question was how to take the movement beyond the Popular Front. To have deduced from the bourgeois character of the Popular Front that there was no difference between it and fascism would have been sectarian stupidity. Rather, the workers' militias (which, of course actually existed, unlike in Iran today) should fight on the side of the Republic; the Marxists should try to build up the independent strength of the workers until they could overthrow the Popular Front as well as defeat fascism-indeed as a prerequisite for it. To compare the ensconced counter-revolutionary government of Khomeini with the Spanish Republic in 1936 is very, very odd. (That there was some apparent similarity in 1980, with the revolution still - it was imagined - recent and alive gave some rational content to pro-Iran positions in the early period of the war. Similar situations to Spain are not hard to imagine; but Iran in 1988 is not one of them).

The abstract, apolitical fantasy that 'imperialism' and 'anti-imperialism' are the only actors in contemporary history leads to reactionary conclusions. Real life Iraqi workers and peasants simply disappear: their obliteration, first in theory and then, presumably, in military fact, is justified, because they are in the 'imperialist camp'.

No doubt the SWP's theoreticians imagine that if you scratch an Iraqi soldier, you find an American marine. Socialists should not justify Iran's war. A victory for Iran would not be a victory for 'anti-imperialism', except in so far as 'anti-imperialism' is a concept so devoid of meaning that it can include Ayatollah Khomeini. Iranian socialists should continue to argue against the war; Iraqi socialists likewise. Socialists in Britain and the US should campaign against imperialist involvement, for withdrawal of fleets and flotillas-but on the basis of political honesty, and internationalism. For in fact the 'pro-Iran' lobby, like the British SWP, in the name of 'anti-imperialism' have justified a form of social chauvinism no less anti-socialist than the betrayal of August 1914. To coin a phrase, they are the 'social anti-imperialists' of the 'eighties.

What the SWP says today about Iran and Palestine flies in the face of its basic theory and political tradition. The SWP's forerunner, the Socialist Review group, started out in 1950 on the basis of refusing to support North Korea against US imperialism as other would-be Trotskyists did. In the '50s and '60s, one of its chief political badges as a tendency was its opposition to 'Third Worldism', which often went as far as downright disdain for Third World struggles. It has continued the same attitude into the '80s, though (without explanation) developing quite different theories to underpin it: see Nigel Harris's recent book, 'The End of the Third World'. In 1982 the SWP was one of very few would-be Trotskyist groups who (like us) rejected the 'anti-imperialist' line of supporting Argentina in the South Atlantic war, and instead explained that Argentina's role in the war was imperialistic like Britain's, though on a different scale. In 1980 the SWP opposed both sides in the Iran/Iraq war, though the recentness of Iran's 1979 revolution made many would-be Trotskyists back Iran. On Palestine/Israel the SWP's current line has a longer history; but even there the insistence on the immovably reactionary nature of the Israeli working class is new, and in 1967 the SWP (then IS) favoured self-determination for the Israeli Jews within a socialist federation of the Middle East. What's going on? For the SWP, what it expounds as theory has always been one thing, what it uses as day-to-day practical politics another. As Tony Cliff once put it (in an argument over the SWP/IS's shift to opposing British entry into the EEC, in 1971), "Tactics and principles contradict each other". Often the SWP "line" is put together in the same sort of way that bourgeois parties package their "message". The first requirement is that the line sounds good and suits organisational needs.

Squaring it theoretically is a job for scribblers to mop up afterwards. The same method employed in the SWP's changes of attitude on the Labour Party and on 'Militant' has also been used in international politics.

At present the SWP wants to sell itself as the hardest of the 'hard left'. It addresses itself to Labour leftists and tells them that the SWP fights for the same causes as them, but with a hard, pure party, and without the hassle of face-to-face battle with the right wing and soft left in the Constituency Labour Parties. To appear very 'anti-imperialist' suits this sales line. It also serves SWP factional purposes in the student movement, where they have been resoundingly outflanked by Socialist Students in NOLS (in which SO is active) and where Israel/Palestine is a big issue.

'Building the party' is, for the SWP, first and foremost about building an organisational machine. Politics come second.

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