Iraq Debate 1: Don’t think twice, it’s alright

Submitted by Anon on 23 November, 2004 - 6:26 Author: Alan Johnson and Jane Ashworth

A reply to Sean Matgamna’s “Reactionary Anti-Imperialism”

Sean Matgamna’s article (“Reactionary Anti-Imperialism” [Solidarity 3/60]) was a useful brick to throw at reactionary anti-imperialists but was dishonest on three counts.

First, Matgamna pretends the AWL has had a consistent position of clear support for the IFTU. In fact, the AWL joined the idiot chorus that attacked the IFTU after Labour Party conference. Martin Thomas wrote: “The actual effect of the Labour Friends of Iraq/Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions intervention at the Labour Party conference was to give Blair a free hand to carry on backing Bush. Whatever sophistry may be used to evade this fact, it was de facto support to Bush’s policy — brutal, arrogant, militaristic, privatise-at-all-costs, “spot of trouble? Slaughter a few hundred more civilians and that’ll show them!” — which, far from being a democratic alternative to the rise of Islamist reaction, has fuelled that rise”.

Stupid. Hysterical. An unwitting part — and one balanced by better things Thomas has written — of the fingering of the IFTU that contributed to the disgraceful assault at the ESF. So much for Matgamna’s assertion that they support the IFTU. The unpleasant truth is that Thomas not Matgamna represents the mainstream of the AWL on the issue of Iraq. Matgamna is often silent while this political nonsense sets the AWL’s tone.

Read these web comments from AWLers:

AWL member: “We recognise the IFTU leaders for what they are — right-wing Stalinist bureaucrats prepared to collaborate with an imperialist occupation”.

AWL member: “It would be stupid of socialists and workers, either in Iraq or here, to use the existence of a potentially more brutal force around Al Sadr to excuse the brutality of that occupation. But that as far as I can see was what the IFTU representatives, that you [Alan Johnson] are close to, did at the Party conference”.

Mick Duncan, the organiser of the No Sweat group did not even mention the attack on the IFTU at the ESF, in his ESF conference report for the No Sweat list.

Solidarity editorialised “We disagree with the IFTU’s rallying to Allawi and the Interim Government as a ‘lesser evil’ than Sadr”.

AWL member: “I think the IFTU strategy is wrong because I don’t think unions should have plans for ‘working along with’ ruling classes anywhere”.

AWL member: “The Allawi administration is not just an ordinary ruling class the same as any other. It is, additionally, the puppet of an occupying foreign power. That makes the IFTU’s strategy worse”.

AWL member: “The IFTU representatives’ actions at Labour Party conference are a ‘level of collaboration’ with the government party of an occupying power that goes well beyond what is necessary to secure the space for unions to develop in Iraq — I don’t think that the US/UK occupation can or intends to create a democratic society in Iraq.”

In our opinion the best hope for democracy and the trade unions in Iraq is the UN-backed political transition process. It is codified in UN resolution 1546, overseen by the UN and the Interim government, backed by the Kurds, Sistani, the IFTU, and everyone in Iraq bar the “resistance”. Matgamna knows this. The IFTU knows this. Everyone in the world bar the idiotarian far left knows this.

The AWL’s error is to counterpose the need for independent working class organisations to the UN process as if recognising the validity of the political process necessarily denies such independence. One AWLer, and no neophyte at that, when pushed in a web-debate, confuses the democratic with the socialist programme and demanded workers’ control of the economy as the alternative to the UN process!

The (difficult) task of the Iraqi democrats is to bring democratic pro-worker politics into the UN-backed political process and timetable. And the job of the western left is to support them because they are right to take this approach. It is not good enough to (just) to mimic both the old Militant Tendency, shouting “socialism!” and the old IS, shouting “build workplace organisation!”. The AWL used to know the limits of both abstract propaganda for socialism and narrow syndicalism. But, today, this is what the AWL offer on Iraq. Matgamna won’t draw a clear political programme for Iraq from his critique of “reactionary anti-imperialism”.

Second, Matgamna side-steps any honest accounting about the troops. He pretends the AWL has had a consistent position on the troops. In fact the AWL has been all over the place.

The AWL has argued that the call for troops out now should be “condemned” and argued that US troops only bring “helicopter gunships and cluster bombs”.

In Solidarity (52) the editor argued that socialists must treat the Iraq War like earlier socialists treated World War One and say “Not a penny for the system”. In the jargon this is a “revolutionary defeatist” position. Yet Matgamna argued (Solidarity 50 and 53) that the stance taken by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Britain during World War Two - critical support for the allies against Nazism while continuing to work for socialism — was the better guide for socialists today. In the jargon this is a “revolutionary defencist” position. The first position should logically have led to a call for the withdrawal of the coalition troops, but it hasn’t. The second position should have led to a position of “critical support” to the coalition’s project (while continuing the fight for socialism) but it hasn’t. At the very least the AWL should have faced the fact that it had two positions. It didn’t. The silence on Matgamna’s article about the ILP and World War Two has been astonishing.

In the resultant confusion AWL members have been left picketing British Army barracks to protest troops going to Iraq while selling a newspaper that argues (Matgamna, in Solidarity No. 50) “right now the proclaimed programme of the US-UK in Iraq and their Iraqi clients and allies — the setting up of a viable democratic Iraqi government, and ultimate US withdrawal — is relatively progressive, and that of their armed opponents is reactionary by any measure you choose to use... For all these reasons we condemn slogans like ‘troops out now’ as inappropriate to the situation in Iraq”. So the AWL pickets a barracks demanding no troops are sent to Iraq while selling a newspaper that “condemns” calls for troop withdrawal. No troops out, and no troops in. What about those troops in transit? Keep going? Turn back?

The truth is there are two AWLs.

One AWL has argued that precipitate withdrawal of troops would open the gates to a “vast regression” of Iraqi society and the death of the labour movement while a Solidarity supporters voted at Labour Party conference for, yes, the precipitate withdrawal of troops.

One AWL joins protests against multinationals “touting for business” in Iraq (note, protests that do not just call for labour rights but actually demand capitalists stay out, or get out, of Iraq) while the other AWL, seemingly oblivious, argues the coalition project is “relatively progressive” because, for one reason amongst many it opens the doors to trade unionism — and you cannot have trade unions without industry or jobs!

Matgamna supports troops staying where they are to stop the Saddamist-fundamentalist “resistance” winning. Pete Radcliff [on the website] dodges this question by this argument: “We don’t support a ‘fixed date for withdrawal’, or even an early date for withdrawal because, for one reason, that implies that before that date we support the troops. We don’t support the troops at any time.”

Take careful note of this. One AWL does not support the troops “at any time” while another AWL “condemns” calls for their withdrawal.

In fact, the AWL opposes “one penny” being spent on the very soldiers whose withdrawal from Iraq they would “condemn”.

When a Solidarity supporter at Labour Party conference voted for an early date for withdrawal she denounced the IFTU for failing to support her, using this argument: “The fig leaf used by the Blairites to cover their naked ‘save Tony’ strategy was the support of some Iraqi trade unions for the Allawi government. In order to persuade the Big Four union delegations that they should oppose the critical motion, representatives of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions attended delegation meetings to argue against early withdrawal of troops, and to put the case that the decision on this should be down to Iraq’s elected Government rather than Labour Party conference”. In other words the Solidarity supporter was outraged that the IFTU advanced Matgamna’s own argument, the argument carried in an editorial of the newspaper she supports.

The ambivalence is driving some mad. Martin Thomas opts for lies and fatuous abuse of LFIQ and all its works for advancing the very arguments set out by Matgamna. Presumably he fears that some AWLers who back Matgamna will want to get involved. “A ‘solidarity’ campaign which crawls so far and so fast up Blair’s arse will not deliver much solidarity”, belched Thomas, shortly after attacking the IFTU as “de facto backers of Bush and slaughter.” (Solidarity 3/60)

AWL coverage of Party Conference privileged your desire to blood Blair’s nose above the living reality of Iraq. That is a form of chauvinism you would never have allowed over Ireland. You could have taken on the reactionary anti-imperialists over Party Conference but you chose instead to stay and keep them warm: perhaps you dare be isolated with anyone, but us.

We would have watched all this from the sidelines had it not been for Matgamna’s attack on the very people (us) who have developed the political position he now agrees with. He attacks myself and Jane Ashworth (who have joined with others to set up Labour Friends of Iraq) as “pixillated right wing political suicides” who have “self-prostrated before the US and UK ruling classes”). The extravagant violence of the language is good knock about stuff written not only to amuse the members and licence them to try to cut up rough, but has another purpose. It is a protective shield.

The awkward fact for Matgamna is that everything politically important he says in October 2004 I or Jane Ashworth — the “pixillated right wing political suicides” who have “self-prostrated before the US and UK ruling classes” — have been saying, often in heated debate with his own members, since March 2004.

Compare the following quotes:

Johnson (March 2004): “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. 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 breath — is finished for that kind of progressive politics. It is time to move on”.

Matgamna (October 2004): “The left is defined, grouped and regrouped, and redefined again and again, by responses to major events — for example, to the October Revolution of 1917. The left is now undergoing another redefinition, around its responses to the series of wars that began with the Kosova war of 1999 and continued through to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who stand for working-class socialist politics are lining up on one side, and on the other are those who are for a nameless, classless, almost depoliticised and entirely negative ‘anti-imperialism’.

Johnson (March 2004): “Political third campers want to build a third camp in real political time and in the concrete circumstances we find in Iraq. That means using the breathing space offered by the coalition occupation, for now, to build up the progressive political forces that would constitute a ‘third camp’. In short, we have to understand what the progressive forces inside Iraq have already 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.”

Matgamna (October 2004): “For socialism to become possible, the Iraqi working class and labour movement will have to have time and space to educate and clarify themselves politically. Even the terrible situation there now is more conducive to that than the victory of clerical-fascist ‘anti-imperialism’.”

Johnson (March 2004): “Do I trust the coalition? No, of course not. The task of the third camp is to fight in and against the coalition umbrella for a secular democratic Iraq. Note: ‘fight’! Note: ‘and against’! Shachtman in 1951 was for fighting. You seem to think I am for sitting back and trusting the coalition will deliver democracy. No! But I am for fighting for democracy in the breathing space provided by the coalition — and immediately that means recognising that political space exists and that ‘troops out now’ would close it — by building the size, independence, power, finances, and networks of the progressive democratic opposition. I want a future when that opposition can cast off not only the Baath and al-Qaida but also the control exerted by the coalition. But politics is always a strategic activity, always conducted in real political time. First this, so we can move on to that. If ‘third camp socialism’ is to move on it must decide to live in ‘real political time’... That does not mean giving up on our goals. But it might mean we move towards our goals and not someone else’s. And that would be a start.”

Matgamna (October 2004): “The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions believes that the establishment of some sort of bourgeois-democratic system — even with the continued presence of US and British troops, which they oppose — is a better way forward for the Iraqi people. In that they are entirely correct.”

Johnson (March 2004): “The political third camper accept that being for the ‘third camp’ means doing the difficult and messy work of building an alliance of democratic and progressive political forces out of a situation of extreme weakness. This dictates we attend urgently to what we might call ‘real political time’ and develop our political programme in its light. This kind of third camper wants to be a political lever not an abstract propagandist. We are working for the construction and eventual victory of the third camp not the coalition. But if we decide to live in ‘real political time’ not ‘third camp time’ we have do that work in a particular way, connecting up the brute facts about the present role of the coalition, the present strength of our forces, and our own future goals. That present is the only terrain on which we fight to carve a better future, as opposed to merely making abstract propaganda for one.”

Matgamna (October 2004): “Socialism would be better. But if the working class is not yet able to win socialism, then the IFTU is right that the establishment and consolidation of the sort of bourgeois-democratic rights that now exist de facto, despite the bloody chaos in Iraq, and without which the trade unions cannot survive — that that is the best possible option for the Iraqi working class.

The real difference between us and Matgamna was captured by an AWL member months ago. “At least Alan Johnson takes his position to its logical conclusion and offers critical support to the occupation in its attempts to put down the Islamists and Ba’thists and oversee a transition to something vaguely resembling national sovereignty. At least Alan admits that he does, advocating leaving the task of opposing the Ba’thist-Islamist-civil war threat to the imperialists, claiming that the workers have ‘no choice’ but to do this”.

In other words, the real difference is that we have been willing to draw practical political conclusions and fight for them. There is no chance of a workers’ militia fighting back the insurgents and once that truth lays waste to flat-pack politics there are consequences to be faced: now, just as in World War Two.

The road to the self-determination of the Iraqi people passes through the democratic process being overseen by the UN and the coalition. The role of the left is to build up our forces to fight within that process. Back in March Alan Johnson cited this passage written by Max Shachtman in 1951 (when he was still a left-wing socialist leading the Independent Socialist League):

“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”.

Today, Matgamna is saying something almost identical. “We are above all else for the development of the labour movement and the political development of the working class. We are for the freedoms without which that will not happen — without which the labour movements and the working class cannot develop politically towards socialism and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Everything else is subordinate to that. There is nothing — except the socialism that the working class must win — higher for us than that. ‘Anti-imperialism’ that is indifferent or hostile to the working class and the labour movement is a contradiction in terms”.

Matgamna must make up his mind. His organisation must make up its mind.

You can think troops should come out as part of a political settlement as Sean does, or you can be for their precipitate withdrawal, as the AWL member at Labour Party conference was, voting with the reactionary anti-imperialists to give Blair a bloody nose.

You can think the IFTU “correct” as Sean does, or “de facto backers of Bush and slaughter” as Thomas does.

You can think the best guide to our thinking on Iraq is the ILP during World War Two as Sean does (“revolutionary defencism”) or think that Lenin’s analysis of World War One the better guide as the Solidarity editor did (“revolutionary defeatism”).

But you can’t think all of these things at once. Not in logic nor in political reality.

Sean, your first thought is the right one. Don’t think twice, its alright.

Alan Johnson and Jane Ashworth

• See also Sean Matgamna's response;

part 1
part 2
part 3

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