Ambiguities in the Third Camp

Submitted by Anon on 12 September, 2008 - 10:14 Author: Bruce Robinson

Responding to Sean Matgamna’s dicussion piece in Solidarity 3/136, “What if Israel bombs Iran”.

Was Sean’s article scandalous? No. Was Sean’s article badly written? Is it clear exactly what his position is from reading it? Yes and no respectively. Was Sean’s article balanced? Is it adequate? Does it give a rounded view of the issues? No, no, no.

Sean’s analysis of the situation is essentially no more than that Israel is threatened by the clerical fascists and “homicidal religious lunatics” that make up the ruling circles of Iran. There is assumed to be no class or political differentiation within either Israel or Iran. Thus there is no recognition that there are “religious” lunatics and hawks in Israel (some represented in the government) who might wish to start a confrontation with Iran for their own reasons nor any opposition expressed to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Nor is any account taken of the workers’ and anti-war movements in either Israel or Iran, either as a factor in what might happen or as possible victims of a war.

The article also decontextualises any potential Israeli action against Iran, totally ignoring the US threat of war against Iran.

While the AWL has rightly characterised Iran as sub-imperialist and talked about its regional ambitions, Israel’s similar status as a sub-imperialist power is generally downplayed in what we write about the Middle East. It is unclear whether Sean supports what one contributor to the discussion called the “self-defence element” in Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Perhaps Sean feels he shouldn’t need to say that or perhaps he sees that as part of the fake pacifism of the kitsch-left. It is unclear from the article.

Sean’s article is seriously skewed by two things. Firstly, it is aimed at countering the majority of the British left, rather than providing a balanced analysis of the issues. Secondly, as Janine Booth put it, “it addresses the issue from the point of view of what the Israeli state does and does not have the right to do” and simply ignores much else that might be relevant in coming to an overall assessment of the likely effects of and our attitude to an Israeli attack.

Mark Osborn in the website discussion wrote: “In the abstract if the Israelis bomb Iranian nuclear sites and prevent them getting bombs, and that’s pretty much all that happens — good. Is that so outrageous? Well we had an example last year: Israel bombed what seems to have been a nuclear development plant in Syria. Maybe a few people building it were killed. I’m sorry for them. But politically was I outraged? — was anyone on the left outraged? No.”

Now if it was the case that we just had a repeat of the raids on Iraq and Syria to destroy nuclear facilities my emotional response would be to shrug my shoulders and heave a secret sigh of relief. But this would be an emotional response that ignores any possible negative consequences.

We cannot assume that this “best case scenario” would necessarily play itself out. To do so is exactly the same attitude that allows kitsch-leftists to insist that Ahmedinejad does not mean what he says about destroying Israel so we needn’t worry about it. Sean does indicate that there would be negative consequences, though he restricts them to suicide bombers. A more likely and serious consequence is that Iran or its proxy Hezbollah would start firing conventional missiles at Israel, there would be retaliation and this could serve as a basis for the US to launch an attack on Iran. The point here is not to trade scenarios but rather the opposite — to argue that one cannot rely on the least worst outcome. Nor can one take the act out of its broader context.

This directly relates to the grounds on which one might wish to condemn Israel for an attack even if it might have “good reason” from its own viewpoint to do it. I would condemn it for recklessness, its likely consequence of broader war, possible civilian casualties and spread of radioactivity, increasing polarisation and nationalism, increasing internal support for the Iranian regime and the political consequences within Israel and Palestine. These are not the same as the reasons Sean quotes from the kitsch left. Sean mentions some of these things in his article though they rather get lost in the rest of it.

How much these factors weigh in the balance in a given situation is a matter of assessment at the time and cannot be deduced from choosing one or other scenario. Thus some accused me (wrongly) of saying something that implied the “death of scores of Iranians”. In some situations that relatively small death toll might, as Mark suggested, be outweighed by other considerations. This needs to be discussed concretely in the situation in which an attack occurs rather than basing ourselves on assumptions about the best or worst that might follow.

The right to self-defence

Someone put to me the idea that if one supports Israel’s right to exist, one must also support its right to self-defence and by implication its right to attack Iran if it thought Iran was planning an attack on Israel. Unlike in bourgeois international law (a highly effective institution!), the right to self-defence is not for Marxists an absolute, abstract right that can apply in all circumstances. Rather it is the overall nature of the war that is decisive rather than who fires first. Even where we support a war, we are not neutral on the methods used and whether they advance our own aims. For example, we would generally be against attacks on civilian populations.

There are a number of historical precedents for this. In World War One, the social democrats who supported the war on all sides claimed their countries were only acting in their own self-defence or in support of others’ right to self-defence. Though in the abstract Belgium had the right to defend itself against German attack, that right was subordinate to the general imperialist character of the war. Trotsky applied the same arguments to Czechoslovakia in 1938. Lenin wrote in 1915:

“The question of which side dealt the first military blow or first declared war is of no importance for the tactics of socialists. Phrases such as the defence of the fatherland, resistance to enemy invasion, war of defence etc are not, on either side, anything but a means to deceive the people.” (The ‘Defence of the Fatherland’ slogan)

This analogy does not necessarily mean that we could never support Israel in any conceivable war it might fight, though Israel is no less a sub-imperialist power than Iran. It does mean however that the right to self defence is not an absolute right and invoking it does not resolve any of the issues we are discussing. (For example, Iran could claim self-defence as grounds for retaliating to an Israeli first strike.) Further even if we did invoke it, it would not necessarily imply support for any or every military action Israel took.

ambiguities in the third camp

This debate seems to share a lot of the line-ups, unspoken assumptions and arguments of the one on Iraq. The fundamental reason is not that there are unreconstructed “anti-imperialists” lurking in the AWL or that Sean has followed the path of Shachtman. We live in a period when independent working class forces — let alone the Marxists — are extremely weak and are not the decisive forces in resolving even in a non-revolutionary way all sorts of issues including national conflicts.

The “third camp” tradition — or rather traditions — have never adequately resolved the question of what alliances or programme to put forward in such a period or rather they resolve it in different ways none of which are totally satisfactory. Nor have they been able to agree on an attitude to wars waged by non-”Third Camp” forces. This I think is at the root of this disagreement and the one on Iraq.

You can have a rather abstract propagandist view that what you need to say is that we’re against all ruling classes and in favour of working class unity and need for a programme for both Iranian and Israeli working classes. True and certainly the least risky position — but what is this programme and how it would orient us more concretely at the moment?

On the other hand, there is Sean’s rather contradictory combination: accepting we have to take sides on many of the choices posed by bourgeois politics (or at least react to those choices in their own terms) but which at the same time retains the abstract element — that we take no responsibility for them and remain the party of irreconcilable opposition. The article reflects the fact that Sean seems to operate in these two separate political spheres with little connection between them.

On the one hand, there is the sphere of principle where we cannot accept responsibility for an Israeli attack or the Iraq occupation, we are “the party of irreconcilable opposition” etc etc. On the other, because we cannot influence the events, there is the world of day-to-day bourgeois international politics where we are faced with “vulgar practical choices” and have to take positions based on them.

And thirdly, there is the group (not in the AWL) for whom there is only the choice of the supposed lesser evil in the terms immediately posed by the 6 o’ clock news. This leads people like the Eustonites to effectively give up Third Camp or more precisely left politics full stop.

Each of these three positions or combinations of them can be found in the history of Third Camp politics in the broadest sense.

There is a real tension between the two elements in the second variant chosen by Sean — which comes across as an incoherence and evasiveness in our politics. Some comrades see only one side of Sean’s dual position and not the other. Some see the declarations of principle; some saw only the pragmatic accommodations, and there is no reconciliation of them that makes much sense proposed by either side.

I suspect that the reasoning behind this division in Sean’s head is that all we can do at the moment is make propaganda for our ideas and fight the rest of the left and are therefore limited in the extent to which we can avoid making the “difficult choices” posed by day-to-day bourgeois politics at least on the international level. This is not a totally dishonorable position — it resists following Shachtman’s path by virtue of the inconsistent way in which it is applied and the attached genuine declarations of abstract principle — but it’s one that has major problems.

Firstly, Sean is very selective about when and where to make “vulgar practical choices”. For many on the left whether to support Obama for US President is one such choice. We rightly reject that choice even though no immediate alternative exists and we can only make abstract propaganda about what is needed in the US. Closer to home, Sean’s position on the Good Friday Agreement was based precisely on the rejection of the two immediate “practical” alternatives because neither of them was what we wanted. Europe is another example. The point is that invoking the need to make “vulgar practical choices” is done very selectively, based probably on criteria other than the content of the issue itself (like the crap the rest of the left will say about an issue).

Secondly, if applied consistently, this could become a slippery slope towards a politics based on choosing the immediate lesser evil that appears open to us. After all, Shachtman’s path emerged from seeing “democratic” US imperialism as a lesser evil to Stalinist totalitarianism. I am not suggesting that we have taken that path and there are many built-in safeguards against it but I do think it is a danger in the sort of method Sean uses.

We should also resist the temptation to see ourselvesas geopolitical analysts. Firstly, insofar as we are, our wisdom is second hand from other sources, which we also need to read critically and politically. We have neither the resources nor the expertise to develop such skills ourselves. It is also not our role. One of the things we have long analysed as a problem with post-war Trotskyism is a tendency to speculate abstractly about great social forces sweeping across the globe and to ignore the real political content involved. And we opposed the Thornettites idea that we should support Argentina in 1982 because it would “weaken imperialism”. Clearly we need to base our politics on real information about what is going on in the world. But we should not base our politics on grandiose speculation about what might happen but rather on the logic of the class struggle.


The AWL has yet to fully work out what an adequate Third Camp politics for today — one that contains transitional politics but doesn’t totally ignore (or conversely adapt to or take for granted) the fact that the working class is often not organised as an independent actor, let alone one that can determine the outcome of these immediate issues or still more distantly make a revolution.

I don’t feel I have a magic solution. I am sympathetic to the idea that we need to start from how Third Camp forces (primarily the workers but also, for example, the Israeli peace movement) might begin to change the choices with which we are now faced but sceptical as to how far a programme elaborated from thousands of miles away without links or influence among those forces can be effective in that.

But we do need at least to discuss the gaps in our tradition for dealing with the world we are faced with today.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.