Should the anti-war movement
'defend Iraq'?

(from The Workers' Advocate December 1, 1990 vol. 20, #11,
just before the outbreak of the first Gulf War)


The war of an oppressed nation against imperialism
"Military, not political, support"
Does desiring defeat for US imperialism mean desiring victory for Iraq?
Sheer opportunism

. A new anti-war movement has emerged. Like any other mass movement, there are different ideas and political forces involved. To build this movement effectively, activists will have to sort through and talk over the different orientations and policies being offered.

. The most serious problem in the movement has been the view advanced by liberals that the people should look for an alternative to war in the corridors of the UN or the halls of Congress. We've seen slogans like, "US out, UN in!" or "No war without a debate in Congress. " These ideas are a complete dead-end. The UN is providing the fig leaf for Bush's war, and Congress too had backed the Persian Gulf buildup. If we look to these bodies for stopping the war thrust, we might as well go home and cry ourselves to sleep.

. There's another current of opinion which the Marxist-Leninist Party believes is also a problem for the anti-war movement. This is the stand of cheerleading for the Iraqi side. It is upheld by a series of groups claiming to be revolutionary, socialist and communist; it comes from virtually every left group which bases itself on Trotskyism or which originated as Trotskyists.

. Thus, nearly every one of these groups (with the notable exception of the Workers' World Party) combines cheerleading for Iraq with criticism of Saddam Hussein. Their attitude is best described as "hold your nose and support Iraq. " But this doesn't alter the basic issue -- they see the Iraqi side in this war as a just cause deserving of support from workers worldwide.

. Couched in anti-imperialist and Leninist colors, this view creates the unfortunate impression that a stand against imperialism means support for the tyranny of the Iraqi regime. This too undermines building a serious anti-war movement.

. Sure, there's a lot of hot air about Iraq and its invasion of Kuwait that's come from the US government and media. And that deserves to be opposed, such as the idea that the Kuwaiti monarchy was some sort of desirable regime whose restoration should be supported. But nobody needs to accept such hot air to realize that the Iraqi regime is a despicable tyranny, a police-state capitalist order that has no noble or progressive goals in the war. The working people and youth instinctively feel that way, and the anti-war movement should make this instinctive feeling clearer. It should not stand still for the fantasy that paints the Iraqi government or its invasion of Kuwait in glorious, liberation colors. There is no truth in that, and you can't build an anti-imperialist movement by playing fast and loose with the truth.

. In this article, we want to show that the Trotskyist stand has nothing to do with anti-imperialism or Marxism-Leninism. We strongly believe that the Marxist-Leninist stand on the Persian Gulf war is that this is an unjust, reactionary war on both sides. it is a robbers' war. The duty of the working class in the US in such a war is to fight "the main enemy at home" --"our" capitalist ruling class. Meanwhile, to the working people of Iraq and the Middle East, we say they are right to oppose the US imperialist buildup but they should not throw their support to the Saddam Hussein regime. To break the cycle of militarism, tyranny and capitalist exploitation, they need to build movements of the toilers against imperialism and all the local exploiters -- whether they be Baathist militarists or medieval-style kings, sultans and sheikhs.

. Let's look at some of the empty arguments that are being made on the side of the slogan"defend Iraq".

The war of an oppressed nation against imperialism

. It is said that since Iraq is an oppressed nation, and faces imperialism, the left must stand on its side. Sometimes quotes from Lenin are dragged out to justify this argument. One example offered is the following:

". . . For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be 'just', and 'defensive' wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressive, slave-holding and predatory 'Great' Powers. " (Lenin, Socialism and War, Collected Works, Vol. 21, pp. 300-301)

. This is an example of quoting Lenin in order to tear out the heart of what he is saying.

. The basic stand Lenin puts forward about wars in Socialism and War is to look at what politics preceded those wars. Lenin stressed that the materialist view of wars holds that war is a continuation of politics by violent means. When judging the sides in a war, it is necessary to examine what the sides have been aiming at throughout the historical period leading up to the war.

. For example, says Lenin, there is the question of colonies and dependent countries fighting for their independence against the oppressors.

. How does this compare to the present situation in the Persian Gulf? There is no doubt that imperialism is still playing havoc in the Middle East. And Bush's aim is to reinforce US hegemony throughout the region. But we deny that the confrontation of Iraq with US imperialism today has any parallel to the hypothetical wars Lenin was discussing concerning Morocco, etc.

. Lenin was describing wars of national liberation. Some of these countries were outright colonies like India. The wars of India, Morocco, etc. would have been wars launched by national movements for independence.

. The Iraqi regime and its wars aims do not qualify. Iraq is not seeking independence in this confrontation, but the status of a powerful regional force that can throw its weight around in the Middle East. It is not an abject colony or protectorate where the struggle for independence overshadows the class struggle, but a country where the local exploiters suppress the masses with great ferocity. Iraq is not being blockaded because it took steps in support of its toilers which imperialism could not tolerate, but as part of a capitalist power struggle.

. There is no doubt sentiment among the Iraqi and Arab toilers against imperialism, and we have always supported that, but Saddam Hussein's regime has nothing to do with an anti-imperialist movement of the Iraqi people.

. What were Saddam Hussein's aims in this war? What were the politics leading up to the current confrontation?

. He went into Kuwait not to seek the liberation of the Kuwaiti people from the oil-rich despot there, but for money. He wanted his debts paid off and he wanted a greater share of oil. The debts he had incurred were not form some project to free the Iraqi people from dependence on imperialism, but to wage his bloody, reactionary war with iran.

. Indeed, Saddam did not consider a confrontation with imperialism. he thought he would be allowed to grab Kuwait. That's because the Iraqi regime has been making deals with imperialism, both the Western powers and the Soviet Union, and they have built up his regime and his economic and military strength.

. No thanks, we can't see how Saddam's war is a war of an oppressed nation against imperialism. Lenin wasn't wrong, but the Trotskyists who mutilate his ideas are.

"Military, not political, support"

. The Trotskyist groups are fond of saying they don't support Saddam. Why, they only stand for military defense of Iraq while refusing political support for Saddam.

. This is a total fraud. In the real world, in serious politics, you can't separate the military from the political. If you give the war effort of a certain power support, then inevitably that means giving that side some type of political support. The military effort is merely the outcome of that power's politics. As well, one's actual political stand is measured by what stand one takes towards major events like wars.

. It is possible that one's support for one side in a war might be partial or limited or critical. This would have to be spelled out. If it was not to be simple hypocrisy, it would have to have some meaning other than simply a verbal flourish.

. But war is part of politics, a continuation of politics by violent means. So how can one separate military and political matters, as the Trotskyists do? Would one have to regard "military support" as relating to the real world (which side do you support?) and "political support" to the realm of empty phrases and hypocritical declarations (where's Saddam's latest book?)? Or would one have to say that foreign policy is just a military matter, while only internal issues are political (of course, in Iraq the military is employed freely against the people, such as the Kurds)?

. Interesting, while the Trotskyists quote Lenin on wars of oppressed countries, they ignore the fact that Lenin didn't advance any nonsense about giving "military, not political, support" to such wars. He did not speak of "military, but not political support" to a war of liberation by Morocco, India, etc. Instead he gave firm political support to the national liberation movement against imperialism.

. In fact the formula of "military, not political, support" isn't Lenin's. And it isn't Leninist or Marxist or materialist. In contemporary politics it's become a formula for supporting reactionary regimes. In the early 80's it was used to justify supporting the Argentine generals in war with British imperialism, which was a reactionary war on both sides. Some groups used it to justify support for the Russian army and its client regime in Afghanistan, thus supporting both an imperialist power an a local reactionary regime. And the followers of Tony Cliff, the International Socialists current [for example, the SWP of Britain], used it to justify supporting the Iranian mullahs against the US in the Persian Gul face-off a few years back.

. But the Saddam Hussein regime is so odious, so repulsive that the Trotskyists have a hard time making their case. Thus some gorups offer "creative twists" on their pet formula. One group, the Revolutionary Communist Workers' Organization, in Detroit, tried to float an alternative, something to the effect of "For temporary neutrality towards the Iraqi government; no political support for the political program of the Saddam Hussein regime. " But in reality it was no alternative, other than being next-to-incomprehensible.

Does desiring defeat for US imperialism
mean desiring victory for Iraq?

. The Trotskyist position boils down to calling for Saddam Hussein's victory in the war with the US. From the point of narrow, "practical" politics, this may seem reasonable. Two sides are fighting. If one opposes one side, then it must mean supporting the other.

. But such an argument means only being able to see the existing regimes. It means ignoring the toilers and the mass struggles. It means believing that there is nothing in the Middle East worth considering but the oppressive regimes like Saddam's.

. We however think that the anti-war forces should encourage the Middle Eastern toilers and their liberation struggle. But to say that one must back either Bush or Saddam means to overlook the oppressed masses and to write off work to encourage their liberation struggle. It means believing that the oppressed masses will never rise.

. We think that as long as the struggle is simply Bush versus Saddam, it is a losing proposition no matter what the outcome -- whether it is victory for one or the other side, or a deal in which they come together at the expense of the toiling masses. We hold instead that the working people should stand up to the war machines of each side.

. It is similar to what happens in elections here. The liberals say that it is the Democrats versus the Republicans. If you want to defeat the Democrats, then you must be helping the Republicans. They laugh at the idea of the independent movement of the working class. And they end up lying about how the Democrats are doing some things for the people.

. Similarly, having reduced things to Bush versus Saddam, the Trotskyist groups end up painting the wildest fantasies about the benefits of an Iraqi victory. We are told that this would open the way to the class struggle, how it would create a Pan-Arab anti-imperialist rebellions, etc. Instead of looking at what the Iraqi regime is actually doing to Arab radicals, we are told to dream about how the Iraqi regime, despite itself, will open the way to such marvelous prospects.

. The Freedom Socialist Party is given to some of the wildest fantasizing. They write that an Iraqi victory would mean an anti-imperialist revolt of huge proportions which would naturally also be an anti-capitalist revolt. They write, "coffins are already being prepared for the Arab bourgeoisie."

. This is just day-dreaming. The Iraqi regime does not have anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist goals. Saddam Hussein wants to reach a new deal with imperialism, and he wants to strengthen the profit-making of his local capitalists in the region, not undermine it.

. Of course, no doubt coffins are already being prepared. It is the Iraqi regime which is doing this, and it has been doing it for a long time. Only these coffins are not for the Arab bourgeoisie, but for the Kurds, for the dissenters, for the protesters, for the thousands upon thousands of soldiers who die in one after another of Saddam's military adventures.

. The only way there could be an anti-capitalist revolt is with a new upsurge of the toilers in the Middle East. This isn't going to be ushered in by Hussein, but will require the rebuilding, reorientation and strengthening of the progressive movements in the region. Today, these movements are weak or, in the case of the Palestinian intifada, facing difficult problems of orientation. They also have to deal with the rise of the Islamic fundamentalists, who are trying to make headway in the present situation.

. Of course, if the war breaks out in the Gulf, it may have far-reaching consequences, destabilize a number of pro-imperialist regimes, and echo for years. But progressive consequences will not come through the agency of the present Iraqi regime, but as an inadvertent outcome desired as little by Hussein as by Bush.

Sheer opportunism

. Many of the Trotskyist groups who cheer the Iraqi side proclaim it openly and loudly. But not all. Some shout it from the rooftops while others hide it. The Workers' World Party and the ISO, for example, while believing in it, think it wiser to keep it in the background.

. Unfortunately, this silence doesn't spring from any noble aim, but only from sheer opportunism. If one really believes in an Iraqi victory as the key to progress, the honest -- though mistaken -- thing to do is to advocate such a policy. But the WWP and ISO are much too interested in coalition politics with liberals like Ramsey Clark and others on the left wing of the Democratic Party. These liberal and reformist forces would shun them if they heard the slogan of "defend Iraq. " So the WWP and ISO have to keep things quiet in order to cozy up to the liberal wing of the American bourgeoisie.

. We instead call on activists to help build a movement that will fight the bourgeoisie and imperialism. We put forward slogans against illusions in the UN and congress and thus fight the harmful influence of the liberal bourgeoisie in the anti-war movement. We say, organize against the imperialist bourgeoisie in the US, and support the Middle Eastern toilers against their own exploiters and oppressive regimes. Don't defend the Iraqi regime -- defend the Iraqi toilers. <>

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Last changed on March 13, 2003.