The left devotes much of its efforts to campaigning against imperialism, which is no surprise given the present foreign policy of the American and British governments. However, in order to effectively combat imperialism and war, it is necessary that we understand what ‘anti-imperialism’ means, who is anti-imperialist, and what relationship that has with working-class politics.
Unfortunately, the dominant conception of ‘anti-imperialism’ on the British left today, as schooled to thousands of young new activists by organisations such as the Socialist Workers’ Party, is wholly inadequate. As I shall explain, rather than taking imperialism on at a structural level, i.e. by understanding it as the logic of modern capitalism, the SWP along with orthodox Trotskyist and Stalinist groups take an anti-war stance entirely abstract from any analysis of class relations or democratic rights such as self determination. For this reason, they take the position that any opponent or competitor of the largest imperialist power – the United States – is therefore ‘anti-imperialist’ and therefore worthy of support.
In order to sustain this illusion, they exaggerate or falsify the progressive characteristics of the forces they support. For example, they claim that that Iran is the most democratic country in the Middle East, and wax lyrical about the welfare programmes and "women's participation" in Hamas. At Stop the War conference these ‘anti-imperialists’ entertained Somaye Zadeh, who lied outrageously to play down the human rights abuses of the Tehran regime. In the NUS left unity discussions the SWP were unwilling to raise slogans to support workers in Iran but happy to make vague gestures of support for "democratic forces". Claiming that the existence of pro-reform elements within the elite is itself evidence that Iran is democratic, they look to sections of the Iranian bourgeoisie to effect change rather than encouraging the working class to overthrow it.
They seem to want to see this decade as the 1960s in slow motion, with Hamas substituting for the Vietcong and the Iranian government for Cuba. Indeed, so progressive do they deem these ‘anti-imperialist’ friends in the Middle East that they see fit to deny the existence of a working-class movement opposed to both imperialism and political Islam. But this attitude is not just a betrayal of our comrades in the Middle East, who so badly need solidarity from the international labour movement – it is also a completely wrong-headed understanding of what forces are able to challenge imperialism.
Of course, helped by the sabre-rattling of George Bush and Western sanctions, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is plenty able to speechify with anti-imperialist rhetoric - and yet not only did the Iranian regime ban demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, but it supported the invasion, and furthermore supports the occupation of Afghanistan. Ahmedinejad has willingly introduced all sorts of IMF plans to liberalise the Iranian economy and at the same time has clamped down on trade unions, with long periods in jail for activists in the militant bus workers’ union. Similarly, parties in Iraq like Dawa, SCIRI and even the forces led by Moqtada al-Sadr, which all call for the immediate withdrawal of troops, are not even sufficiently ‘anti-imperialist’ as to refuse to participate in the occupation government. Hezbollah are Shia sectarians and radical Islamists, but their row with Prime Minister Siniora in fact has the aim of grabbing a few posts in a coalition government. On the other side of the conflict, the Americans have their own Islamist allies and militias in Iraq, and, indeed, as in the past with Saddam Hussein, are perfectly willing to deal with any local despot.
While all the organisations I have mentioned have at times been in direct conflict with US imperialism, and their relations with the US bourgeoisie are complex, they are far from consistently anti-imperialist. They are little but sections of the ruling class looking to grab a slice of the action, yet the Socialist Workers’ Party characterises them as relatively progressive since they are not the ‘main’ enemy. A logical extension of the same idea, as employed by Socialist Action and the CPGB (Marxist-Leninist), is that the Chinese government is (or “remains”) ‘anti-imperialist’ since it is in competition with the USA, or liberal support for the European Union as some sort of counterweight to George Bush.
What is missing from all of these ideas is any notion of class, with barely even the suggestion that imperialism is premised on a set of class relations. The Middle Eastern labour movement, which is mostly relatively weak, obviously disappoints these people. We can see the same mistake being made by such people as Nick Cohen, the Euston Manifesto group and ex-Marxists like Norman Geras who, thinking that the working-class is dead after the fall of the Soviet bureaucracy, support “humanitarian” interventions or imperialist missions to spread democracy, with the US Army staging a Bonaparte-like fight to spread the French Revolution by the sword. They deprive words like ‘democracy’ (and they even speak of ‘workers’ rights’) of any meaningful content, substituting liberation-from-above by imperialist powers for the idea that people should take control over their own lives. Operationally, these people are not left-wing in any real sense, since they have no understanding of agency other than that US troops can be an effective force for ‘change’.
For those who have stuck by Marxism, the recent conflicts in the Middle East have just offered further bloody proof of the absolute impossibility of imperialism serving the cause of democracy. We stick unfailingly by the idea that it is the working class which fights for social liberation, and even if it is weak in the here and now we must seek to build its organisations, not rely on some two-bit democrat in a smart suit or a general’s epaulettes.
The stance of the majority group in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, whose ideas are explicitly based on the “third camp” of the working class, is not the same as Cohen and his ilk. Engaging in real solidarity work with comrades in the Middle East, the AWL’s refusal to call for the occupying troops to leave Iraq is predicated on the understanding that their withdrawal would destroy the Iraqi labour movement, since if Islamists came to power they would not tolerate trade unions, or indeed women’s or LGBT organisations. If you believe the AWL majority, the call for “troops out now” is counterposed to defence of the Iraqi workers’ movement.
However, this understanding of events, along with the AWL’s positions on Iran and Palestine, belies some of the same problems as both the SWP and their allies and the Eustonites. The question of class independence is not always in the forefront of their minds. In practice, pessimistic about the prospects for the working class to stand up for itself, the AWL acquiesces to imperialist involvement in the region in the here and now the belief that it will be able to hold Islamism at bay and so create breathing space for the workers’ movement to grow. Of course, we are always living in the “here and now”, while the question of how and why the Iraqi left and trade unions are meant to grow in the “meantime” before the troops leave is barely considered.
Yet it is apparent that the occupation is not a bulwark against Islamism – as I have said, there are numerous Islamist parties and associated militias in the seat of power under the occupation, while most trade union activity is illegal. The imperialist occupiers would far rather make backroom deals to put the Islamists in charge than devote their time to defending workers’ organisations from the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr and his forces.
Furthermore, it is quite clear that if the workers’ movement fails to call for the immediate withdrawal of troops, it will help Islamist groups foster illusions in their own ‘anti-imperialist’ character and abstain from having anything to say about the question of Iraqi self-determination, which should hardly be left for Shia or Sunni supremacists to carve up. If the labour movement did reach the position where it could force the realisation of the slogan “troops out now”, then clearly the balance of forces would shift in favour of working-class internationalism and against clerical fascist reaction.
But not only does the AWL refuse to call for “troops out of Iraq now” in the understanding that the workers’ movement will be crushed if they are withdrawn, but also blurs class lines in other conflicts. Some in the AWL support the US-EU-backed Fatah to stave off Hamas and have even taken a soft stance of US aggression against Iran. In Solidarity Mark Osborn has played down the idea that Palestinian workers could act independently of Fatah, “under Fatah there is some freedom for a third camp to develop; under Hamas there is none. David doesn’t like the choice, Fatah or Hamas. I don’t like it much myself. But during the fighting in Gaza that’s what it came down to”.
Worse, in October Martin Thomas made the hypothesis “if it were possible to imagine some ‘surgical’ operation that would stop Iran’s hideous regime acquiring nuclear weapons, and take out the foul Ahmadinejad, it would be good”, as if it were even vaguely plausible that such an eventuality would a) not kill thousands of people b) not strengthen the hand of the regime to crush internal dissent or c) replace the Ahmedinejad government with anything better. No matter how much he qualified his statement and criticised Bush, I cannot understand what was going through Martin's head when he ventured that idea. What we really need to be talking about is the way in which war threats undermine our comrades in Iran - a conflict would be a disaster, while even in the here and now US sabre-rattling gives credibility to the regime's anti-imperialist mask.
In none of these cases is the majority stance consistently Third Camp - it seems to veer towards backing non-working class forces who happen to use the right catchphrases about “democracy”, “two states” and so on.
I refute the suggestion that we must prioritise opposing the occupation of Iraq or war and sanctions against Iran over direct solidarity with workers, women and students in those countries, or indeed vice-versa. This idea concedes an awful lot of ground to the Stalinist worldview which sees all Middle Eastern workers with democratic or secular goals as ‘objective’ allies of imperialism, and claiming that any talk of democracy is siding with George Bush, seeks to set a dividing line between anti-war and workers’ solidarity efforts. Equally, I do not accept that we should "prioritise" either opposition to imperialism or opposition to Islamists over the other - we shouldn't be allying with either.
Far from being counterposed, these two fronts of struggle are inextricably linked. Workers' action to undermine our armed forces and strikes against the war are vital in showing the power of the working class to stand on its own two feet as a force which can intervene in the "war on terror" conflict. "Troops out now" is not a magic wand to make the troops disappear, but a slogan for the working class to organise around, to try and force the realisation of that demand itself. I support the slogan not because it is unrealisable, so it doesn't matter what the consequences would be if it played out, but precisely because if it is workers in the US and UK or workers in Iraq whose efforts force the troops out, then the balance of forces will turn in favour of the workers' movement.
Even if they occur only sporadically and do not receive prominent coverage in the international pages of the bourgeois media, actions like those of the train crew in Scotland or dockers in the United States who refused to move weapons are inextricably linked to the strikes of oil workers in Basra, and must be both encouraged and loudly advertised. Rather than writing articles about geopolitical developments which we cannot influence with analyses cropped from the comment pages of the Guardian, our primary task is to talk about what the workers' movement might achieve through its own struggles and its potential for such shows of power in society.
This idea of working-class internationalism does not just mean trade union conferences passing resolutions about the war, or bureaucrats in suits speechifying about the need to give a bit of money to the Stop the War Coalition, but practical solidarity action with our comrades abroad, critical engagement with the ideas of the Middle Eastern left (including encouraging exile communities to assimilate into the local left) and propaganda which sharply poses the question of how workers in countries like Britain can fight in common with their counterparts abroad.
The defining characteristic of most of the far left’s stance on imperialism is a profound retreat from class, looking to any number of reactionaries and local bourgeoisies to resist the influence of the US hyperpower. Of course, it is true that despite large strikes in the Iraqi oil fields and Egyptian textile factories, the Middle Eastern working class is far from being in a position to defeat imperialism and Islamism. But that does not mean that we can loosen our grip on the Marxist understanding of class independence – the growth of our forces, which currently appear weak, is the only hope we have for democracy and peace in the Middle East, and – worldwide - we must strive unerringly to develop workers’ understanding of their independent agency. The AWL does have a much stronger class focus than other left groups, yet has still failed to develop a real understanding of working-class internationalism and what exactly constitutes an anti-imperialist workers’ movement.
Solidarity with Iraqi workers!
Troops out now!