The third side, the Iraqi masses
Opposing both sides in the war crisis

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice, vol. 8, #3, issue #30, December 15, 2002)


. The coming war in the Persian Gulf being threatened by the Bush administration will be another war for oil and empire. The Bush administration wants to dominate the Persian Gulf, with its ample supplies of oil. Bush the elder fought such a war with Iraq ten years ago. And Bush the younger is following in his father's footsteps. This is a typical imperialist war. And it is a key part of Bush's "war on terrorism", under which banner US intervention and military pressure is being dramatically increased all over the globe.

. The immediate target of the Bush administration is the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. This regime, once an ally of US imperialism in the effort to contain Iran, is now a rival. The US and other imperialist powers have fought many types of wars over the years. Some of them have been fought to defeat liberation movements. But in this war, US imperialism is fighting a rival reactionary. After Saddam Hussein assumed full power in Iraq at the end of the 1970s, he led Iraq into two decades of confrontations in order to build up Iraq as a major regional power. This regime fought Iran for a decade in the 1980s in its own war for oil and influence. It invaded Kuwait for the same reason. And despite the mass hardships caused by the vicious US-dictated sanctions, the regime is still fighting for the same purposes.

. There is a side in this situation that deserves the support of the anti-war movement, but it is neither US imperialism nor the Saddam Hussein regime. It is the Iraqi masses, who have borne the repression of the Hussein regime, and they have borne the weight of US intervention, war and sanctions. It is the oppressed masses in Iraq, and the anti-war movement in the US and elsewhere, that constitute the third side of this war.

. The Iraqi masses are divided up by a variety of conflicting political and social trends, and there is no revolutionary force leading their struggle. The movement of the Kurds in the north is dominated by bourgeois nationalist organizations, while the Shiite majority in the South is involved with Islamic religious movements. The Iraqi regime has relied on the Sunni minority in central Iraq as its base, but it is a regime of the bourgeoisie and the militarists, and it oppresses the majority of the Sunnis as well. All this makes it more difficult to forge relations between the Iraqi masses and the anti-imperialist masses here and elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, it is an important task of progressive activists to forge such links, and to encourage all efforts in Iraq to form a revolutionary alternative to Western imperialism and the local Iraqi exploiters.

. Thus the present crisis in Iraq has three sides, not two. We must distinguish not just between US imperialism and Iraq. We must distinguish between US imperialism, the Hussein regime, and the Iraqi masses. And we must support the Iraqi masses against both its oppressors. This class approach to the situation in the Gulf will also help us take a class approach to building an anti-war movement here, so that there is a strong third side to this war in the US as well. Here too we face a situation where the left is disorganized, and it should make us more receptive to the difficulties which face the Iraqi working masses. And we also face a situation where bourgeois forces are influential in the left. But the weak bourgeois opposition to the coming war is based largely on its fear that Bush's crude militarism will hurt US imperialist links and alliances with the various exploiting regimes of the Gulf. An anti-imperialist opposition to the war, on the other hand, can have no sympathy with the idea of maintaining US imperialist alliances, nor can its goal be to restore working relations between the Hussein regime and the US. It has to be based on the idea of helping to build up the force of the working masses. It has to realize that this is such a force will eventually be more powerful, even if these days it is still only a potential power, than Western imperialism and all the reactionary regimes and movements.

Apologists for oppression

. Today, a number of Trotskyist groups believe that the Saddam Hussein regime, because it is being squeezed by US imperialism and will soon be invaded, must therefore be carrying out an anti-imperialist resistance. They know that the Hussein regime is oppressive, and was even a US imperialist ally in the past. But by Trotsky's mechanical rule, any Third World government in a war with US imperialism must be waging a just, anti-imperialist war. So they do not see both sides as reactionary in this war, but only one side. This was the same stand that they had in the first Persian Gulf war.

. This stand of supporting the military efforts of the Hussein regime is not usually stated very openly. In most statements, it is expressed by omitting any discussion of Hussein and the sharp class contradictions in Iraq, and by opposing those anti-war activists who do discuss these things. Thus, the WWP and various other Trotskyists will write in detail about the sordid motives of US imperialism in the coming war, but will neglect to mention the motives of the Saddam Hussein regime. They present the matter as if an anti-colonial struggle were going in, and ignore the actual nature of the Iraqi regime. The WWP writes at length about the history of colonialism in the Middle East and of imperialist intervention, and continually implies that the Hussein regime is engaged in an anti-colonial struggle. And the September 2 statement against the war of the more leftist League for the Revolutionary Party denounces various Arab rulers and their motives, but neglects to mention those of the Hussein regime.

. The Spartacist League (SL) is one of the more fervent advocates of support for the military victory of the Hussein regime. Yet it too simply declares "Defend Iraq Against U.S. Imperialist Attack!" They intentionally express it in a way that activists may take them as defending the Iraqi masses, but not the regime. Indeed, they complained in a recent issue of their paper that "Most of the youth with whom we talked at the October 26 protests could not distinguish between the ubiquitous reformist slogan 'No to Bush's war in Iraq!' and our call to 'Defend Iraq against U. S. imperialist attack!' "(1)

. Why does the SL think that the basic but perfectly good anti-war slogan "No to Bush's war in Iraq!" is reformist? It's because it doesn't call for the military victory of Hussein's regime, and the Spartacists can't imagine that it is the idea of relying on one reactionary to fight another that is reformist. In their article, they demand that "the starting point" of the anti-war movement must be to "take a side" in the war between U. S. imperialism and the Hussein regime. They argue, essentially, that Hussein is the lesser of the two evils, as "there is a qualitative difference between bloody U. S. imperialism, and a tinpot dictatorship like Hussein's Iraq. "(2) It doesn't strike them there is an even greater difference between the working masses and both US imperialism and the Hussein regime. But, strange to say, their own slogan, "Defend Iraq against U. S. imperialist attack!", says Iraq, not the "Iraqi regime". This is why many activists aren't clear on what they are saying. For that matter, in the very article in which they argue that it is important to side with the Hussein regime, they are ashamed to give slogans that would unambiguously be understood by activists as support for the regime, and generally prefer to speak of defense of "Iraq".

"Military but not political support"

. Most Trotskyists claim that they can back Saddam Hussein or other reactionaries in a war, without thereby giving him any support. They describe this acrobatic feat as "military but not political support", and this is a slogan that is common to most all factions of Trotskyism. Thus the SL article contends that "Military defense of Iraq [referring to the Iraqi regime--JG] does not imply the slightest political support to the regime of Saddam Hussein".

. This not only defies all commonsense, but it is absolute hypocrisy. Marxism holds war is the continuation of politics by violent means. War is one of the most intense and deadly forms of politics. Backing a regime's military efforts is, to that extent, political support for that regime. And in practice, we see, in the current war crisis, that most Trotskyists tone down or omit denunciation of the Hussein regime in their statements, which is another illustration of the impossibility of separating "military" and "political" support.

. Indeed, the SL article goes on to say that Hussein is a horrible dictator, who has done many horrible things, but adds, so what? He is, they say, "no different" from any other reactionary in the region, such as Israeli zionism! They regard this argument as the height of revolutionary realism, but it is an example of complete bankruptcy. After all, it is the job of socialist activists to rally opposition to these other reactionaries, and a world struggle is going on against Israeli zionism. And yet the SL argues that, because Hussein is no different from these diehard enemies of the working masses, we should not oppose the Hussein regime, but give it military support! Are we supposed to advocate equality of opportunity for the world's reactionaries, and overlook Hussein's war on the Iraqi working masses on the grounds that other reactionary regimes also massacre the working people? Are we supposed to be upset over the fact that it isn't fair that US imperialism attacks one of its former friends, and not all the others?

. Here it is, in the SL's own words. Hussein

"has carried out terrible slaughters of Kurds and other ethnic minorities, Communists and labor leaders, any who might challenge his rule. But ["But" the SL doesn't care, because other reactionaries also massacre the people!!!--JG] in this Hussein is no different from any of the other emirs, colonels and sheiks of the region, not to mention the Zionists with their huge nuclear arsenals who are fully capable of expelling or massacring Palestinians on a truly genocidal scale under cloak of a U. S. attack on Iraq. "

. It might be thought that the formula of "military but not political support" was an effort to provide only conditional and partial support for a regime. True, even such support for Hussein's regime would be a betrayal of the Iraqi people and the working masses of the world who are faced with struggle against both Western imperialism and local reaction. But maybe, it might be thought, the Trotskyists are at least trying to wean themselves away from the Hussein regime. Now, the slogan does allow the Trotskyist groups to sometimes say some bad things about any regime whose war they happen to be supporting. But it should be borne in mind that the Trotskyists at the same time call for "unconditional defense" of the war effort of various reactionary regimes. The formula "military but not political support" convinces them that they can reconcile such "unconditional military defense" with a supposed total absence of political support for the regimes.

. The slogan of "military but not political support" is thus both theoretically flawed and disastrous in practice. But it does answer a problem that confronted Trotsky himself. Trotsky claimed that one could back a hypothetical war waged by a fascist regime in Brazil against Britain, without thereby backing the fascists. (3) But he had a hard time explaining how this could be done. He relied on the claim that winning the war would somehow result in the overthrow of the victorious fascist regime. This couldn't be very convincing. The formula "military but not political support" is the way that such support for reactionary regimes is explained by Trotskyists today.

Anti-imperialism and the class struggle

. "Military defense" of the Hussein regime detaches anti-imperialism from the class struggle inside Iraq for the duration of the war crisis. Indeed, some Trotskyist groups, such as the WWP, say that anti-war activists have no right to discuss the internal situation in Iraq or other countries whose governments have some contradiction with US imperialism. They demand silence about the class struggle in those countries. As Deidre Griswold wrote in a recent issue of WWP's paper, "Workers World refuses to participate in or condone the demeaning and insulting attacks on Third World leaders that fill the pages of imperialist newspapers and journals. "(4) But it is one thing to oppose the right of US imperialism to dominate the world, and it is another thing to oppose the right of the working class in the US and elsewhere to support the struggle of the working masses in Iraq and other countries.

. The Trotskyists present their stand of "military support" for the Hussein regime and other reactionaries as the only way of directing the anti-war movement squarely against the American bourgeoisie. But it is impossible to be a Marxist about class relations in the US while being a neutral bystander to the oppression of the masses abroad. It is impossible, while putting the repression of the working masses in Iraq aside as irrelevant, to organize a class movement that connects the anti-war struggle to the exploitation and repression in the US. It makes a mockery of international solidarity to make the attempt to do so.

. In fact, the "military support" for Hussein means directing the masses to rely on one reactionary to oppose another. It is true that US imperialism is a far more powerful world reactionary than the Hussein regime. Today, in the guise of a "war on terrorism", the Bush administration is carrying out a program of resurgent imperialist militarism. It is stepping up US pressure, military and otherwise, around the world; it has waged war on Afghanistan and is about to attack Iraq; and it has taken police-state measures in the US, especially targeting immigrants and Islamic people, but striking at the rights of all working people. But the only way to oppose imperialism, both US imperialism and the imperialist system as a whole, is to help organize and mobilize the class forces that are opposed to imperialism. It is only the development of independent organization of the working masses, both in the major powers and the subordinate countries, that can provide a real alternative to imperialism.

. The fact is that, while US imperialism has been stepping up pressure on popular movements around the world, such as in Palestine and Colombia, it is also fighting rival reactionaries, who are enemies of the working people in their own right. It is important for the anti-war movement, while opposing all US aggression abroad, to distinguish between these cases. The Trotskyist separation of anti-imperialism from the class struggle has helped allow anti-imperialism to be identified with support for reactionary tyrants around the world; this is one of the most damaging political blows ever inflicted on the anti-imperialist movement.

. It might be asked, is it so important to be clear on the nature of the Hussein regime when this regime is likely to collapse in the war that is coming ever closer? But the collapse of the Hussein regime will make it obvious that the anti-imperialist movement has to seek out the various class forces inside Iraq. A complex struggle of different political groups and forces in Iraq will ensue, and there will also possibly be intervention by or connections to other countries aside from the US. If the movement waits until the fall of the Hussein regime to deal with these issues, then it will not only have lost precious time, but it will appear utterly hypocritical in approaching the same masses whose plight it ignored earlier.

. Only the working masses can provide a solid basis for an anti-imperialist movement in the U. S. But only agitation that shows the class issues involved in the war crisis can really help promote class-consciousness among the workers and arouse enthusiasm among the youth, students, and other progressive people. This means that it is necessary to deal with the three sides in the coming war. Support for the Hussein regime, whether in hidden form by the WWP or raving form by the Spartacist League, hurts the anti-imperialist cause in the US. To help the anti-imperialist movement revive in the US, we must take a consistent class approach to the anti-war struggle.


(1) "Mass protests against Bush's war moves/For class struggle against imperialist war! Break with the Democrats! For a workers party!" Workers Vanguard, 15 November 2002, starting on the front page. (Return to text)

(2) Ibid. , emphasis as in the original. (Text)

(3) See "Anti-imperialist struggle is the key to liberation: An interview with Mateo Fossa, September 23, 1938", Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39), Pathfinder Press, Inc. , New York, p. 34. This is an important theoretical source for the views of later Trotskyists, and it is cited in SL's article on the anti-war movement. This example is discussed more thoroughly in "Anti-imperialism and the class struggle" in Communist Voice, 20 June 2002, pp. 36-37. (Text)

(4) Deidre Griswold, "A response to anti-communist caricatures: where Workers World stands on imperialism", Workers World, Dec. 12, 2002. (Text)

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