In the last few years there have been a number of instances where conflicts have caused confusion amongst the ranks of the left. Such times are important for the left in reassessing, and regrouping sifting out the healthier elements. Of course that is only true if the right lessons are learned, and the organisations which grow most quickly under such circumstances are in no way guaranteed to be the ones that have learned the correct lessons.
One of the reasons the left has struggled is in my opinion that lessons once learned seem to have been forgotten. I am not talking here about the lessons on imperialism, or the national question, or permanent revolution. Rather I am talking about lessons of independent socialist organisation and action.
Take the example of Kosova. On the one hand you had a vicious and reactionary regime under Milosevic carrying out what amounted to genocide. How were workers to react to this? On the one hand there is the option of merely proclaiming disdain for such action, but with the belief that nothing can be done short of the workers of Kosova uniting for the socialist revolution. Such a position is unlikely to gain much support from those being killed on a daily basis by a reactionary oppressor, nor even from those within the ranks of the oppressor looking for an alternative and something that can be done in the here and now.
On the other hand there is the position adopted most frequently by left social democrats of relying on the United Nations to intervene as a neutral force. The problem with this of course is that the UN is not a neutral force. The major imperialist powers will either only allow the UN to intervene where there is no conflict with their own interests, or will encourage intervention under circumstances where there influence can ensure that the intervention meets their needs.
And of course as in Iraq where the UN does not act in a way that meets the conditions of the US as hyperpower, the US simply intervenes on its own terms.
The problem for socialists here is that especially when the military intervention has begun or when an occupation is in place as in Kosova or Iraq, a conflict that is almost a moral conflict arises. On the one hand the intervention must be denounced, but on the other hand the absence of the intervention or withdrawal will lead to civil war, further genocide etc. which no decent human being let alone socialist would want to encourage.
But this choice does not reflect the full range of choices open. Where workers are being threatened during a protracted strike by gangs of thugs brought in by the employers, socialists do not rely on the police to intervene to prevent it. Socialists certainly would not present to the workers involved the idea that the police are neutral in this situation. On the contrary socialists use the experience to try to teach the workers something about the nature of the capitalist state.
During the 1930s having witnessed what happened in Germany, workers did not wait for some international bourgeois policeman to intervene to counter the threat from Franco’s fascists in Spain. They organised the International Brigade, which was really nothing more than a Workers’ Defence Squad on an International scale, to help the Spanish workers. The socialists who went to fight in Spain, by no means all of them revolutionaries, contributed far more to the effort to defeat Franco than any number of analyses and well thought out phrases.
Socialists teach the workers to rely on their own organisation to defeat the thuggery, and if necessary to extend this to the idea of creating Workers’ Defence Squads. Socialists would advocate the same kind of organisation to defend say black communities against fascist attacks.
Many of those in the Labour Party who supported the Balkans war did so because they had the understandable desire to relieve the suffering of the Kosovan Albanians, just as now they had the same feelings for the Iraqis. But more importantly no credible alternative for relieving this suffering other than military intervention was supplied by revolutionary socialists. The only people that have brought forward an alternative “practical” and immediate solution in many of these situations, for example in Palestine, have not been socialists, but well meaning peace activists who have put their life on the line literally by going into the conflict arena.
Instead of socialists being the ones who organise, and put their internationalism into practice by offering practical, physical support to workers in these situations, it is the reactionary, Islamic fundamentalists.
Revolutionary socialists should give no support to the forces of the international bourgeois policeman, but counterpose their own independence, including a demand that socialist and trade union organisations create international organisations capable of providing practical support to workers internationally in cases of conflict.