The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, December 07, 2003

The Pro-War Left and the Anti-War Right

I want her to be happy
I want her to be free
I want her to be everything
She couldn't be with me.

Warren Zevon, She's Too Good For Me, The Wind, 2003.

The pro-war left is smaller and more isolated than it has been in some recent wars, but it exists. What follows is an argument with a (literally) synthetic pro-war left position. No one person puts forward all these points. There are dangers in this, of posing strawman arguments, but I've included enough links for my sceptical readers (most, I hope) to check out for themselves.

One group for whose general position and tone I have a lot of sympathy claims that the antiwar left is Marching into Oblivion. Over at Harry's Place, you can find any amount of links to - and arguments in support of the general case made by - left-wing intellectuals, some of whose intellects were formed by Marxism, who support the war. Christopher Hitchens, David Aaronovitch, Norman Geras, Johann Hari and others have a straightforward argument as to why socialists, democrats, and liberals should stand shoulder to shoulder with Bush and Blair: the enemies these men are fighting in the war against terrorism are much, much worse than they are, and implacable enemies of everything the left has historically stood for.

Despite the left's differences with some, or much, or even - for the sake of the argument, comrades - all of their domestic policies, the world Bush and Blair stand for, hope for, and fight for is vastly preferable to that dreamed of - and, to the extent of their power, accomplished - by Saddam Hussein, let alone Osama Bin Laden. American and British imperialism - yes, comrades, let's call it that, if it makes you happy - is the projection of the power of bourgeois democracies - yes, comrades, let's call them that, if it makes you happy - and that means, if one is not to be a fool or a nihilist, that they can be an instrument for progressive purposes, or at least have a progressive effect regardless of the subjective purposes of those in charge of them. And in the case of the war on terrorism, and the war on Iraq, an agency of progress is exactly what the imperialist democracies are.

They have accomplished the overthrow of the monstrous Ba'athist regime and thereby - whatever the ongoing blunders and brutalities of the occupation - brought a great and genuine liberation to the people of Iraq. No other prospect of their early relief than foreign arms existed. The left has a moral and political blind spot if it ignores this, and ignores along with it the plain views of, for example, the Iraqi Communist Party, not to mention the ordinary people of Iraq. However quickly they think the occupation should end, however critical or even hostile they may be towards the actions of Coalition troops, most Iraqis are glad the tyrant is gone, and grateful to the forces that removed him. There are no torture chambers operating in Iraq today (though, I would interject, there are still political prisoners; and torture, albeit much less barbaric, goes on). There are independent political parties, trade unions, and a vastly freer press. Beside the enormous reality of this liberation, all the lies and half-truths brought forward by governments to justify the war - imminent threat, WMD, etc - fade into irrelevance. Bringing freedom and democracy or - at a minimum - regime change to Iraq is, and all along should have been, the justification of the war. And if you think the Coalition's proclaimed intention to leave a democracy behind them before they leave is a fraud, look at northern Iraq, where a Kurdish democracy has existed for ten years under Allied protection.

As to the wider war on terrorism, the threat from Al-Qaeda terrorism is not some bogeyman brandished by the imperialists. There is no doubt at all that Al-Qaeda will use the most powerful weapons they can get their hands on, and use them to maximum effect. Apart from the innocent victims, a terrorist WMD strike on America, or on the UK, could mean the swift curtailing of many democratic rights, or even - General Franks expects as much - outright military rule:

It means the potential of a weapon of mass destruction and a terrorist, massive, casualty-producing event somewhere in the Western world - it may be in the United States of America - that causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass, casualty-producing event. Which in fact, then begins to unravel the fabric of our Constitution. Two steps, very, very important.

In the US and the UK, we may be one disaster away from mass arrests and the complete shutting down of inconvenient civil liberties for the duration. We are faced, say the pro-war left, with a worldwide movement that even if it doesn't have the industrial resources and territorial base of classical fascism, has the potential for doing almost equivalent damage, and has aims that if anything are more reactionary than those of fascism.

The argument, depending on who's making it and to whom they're making it, can be back-stopped with unimpeachable socialist historical precedent. Didn't Marx and Engels support the British Empire, with all its brutalities in India and stupidities in the Crimea, against Tsarist Russia? Didn't they wholeheartedly back the United States - with all its hesitations, hypocrisies, faults and evils - against the Southern slave-holders' rebellion? Didn't almost the entire left - not just the liberals and Social Democrats and (Stalinist) Communists, but in their own inimitably contorted way most Trotskyists and even some anarchists - fundamentally, and however critically, support the world war waged by the imperialist democracies and Stalinist Russia against German fascism? Didn't Trotsky execrate those who claimed to believe there was nothing to choose between democracy and fascism? Didn't Lenin himself, that unflinching revolutionary defeatist as far as imperialist and colonial wars are concerned, say that we (the left, the socialists, the revolutionaries, the Marxists) do not in any circumstances support 'the uprisings of the reactionary classes against imperialism'? And are not the Ba'athist torturers, the jihadist terrorists, the mujahedin throat-cutters the upraised arm and mailed fist of the reactionary classes par excellence? And don't they want us (the liberals, the feminists, the left, the socialists, the revolutionaries, the Marxists), us above all, dead?

To those who splutter, at this point if not sooner, 'But what about - !' (make your own list: Vietnam, Greece, the Congo, Chile, Guatemala; the death squads armed, the torturers trained, the tyrants embraced - 'Somoza is a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch' - the arming of the muj and the contras and Renamo and the FNLA, the seating of Pol Pot's justly overthrown regime at the UN and the knighting of Sir Nicholas Caucescu; in Iraq itself the support for Saddam Hussein until his unexpected invasion of 'all of Kuwait', etc, et bloody cetera - the list is long) the pro-war left has a suitably materialist answer.

Yes, they'll freely admit, back then, during the Cold War, the US and UK ruling classes had an objective material interest in supporting any dictator or insurgent, any tyrant or terrorist no matter how vile, who supported capitalism against Communism or who - if a Communist - supported the Western alliance against the Soviet bloc, or could be used by the former to weaken the latter, no matter what the cost to the populations concerned. But now, things have changed. Imperialism - yes, comrades, we're still calling it that, if it makes you happy - has an objective material interest in ending tyrannies like Iraq and anarchies like Afghanistan, because bitter experience if nothing else has taught even the thickest right-wingers that tyrannies and anarchies are sponsors of, or havens for, terrorists who can bring the world down about our ears. And democracies, you know, generally speaking, are not.

So this time, we're told, the spokesmen of capital really mean it, when they mouth again all those worn-thin words we've heard so often and so falsely before about human rights and freedom and democracy. No longer are hapless peoples to be left under the lash or floundering in a bloody welter of chaos just as long as it suits the suits, with their cynical geopolitical calculations and their beady eye on the balance sheets of multinational corporations. Because this time, this time for sure, the calculations and the balance sheets are in the black for the 'red' of democracy and freedom. This time even George W. Bush really does genuinely need the bourgeois revolution in the House of Saud, if only - if we must be cynical, comrades - to save his own selfish skin. This time - for a change, yes; this once, if you insist - the interests of the masters of the world and the workers of the world and, not least and let's not forget, the wretched of the earth, are at last in synch.

And anyone (the pro-war left insists) who claims to be on the left and who fails to recognise this new and changed reality is at best someone who stopped thinking in the 1960s, or 1970s, or 1980s, or 1990s, or in any case some time before September 11 2001; at worst a cynic, a nihilist who 'sees no difference' between democracy and tyranny, between the bikini and the burkha, between elected leaders and self-anointed saviours; a calculating totalitarian schemer or ultra-leftist dolt; or a dupe of any or all of the above. Just listen to the chants that echo on antiwar demos:

'Bush! Blair! CIA! How many kids have you killed today?'

'George Bush! We know you! Your daddy was a killer too!'

How peurile, how unjust, how derivative, how bloody unhistorical can you get?

And, comrades (the pro-war left will say) do for heaven's sake spare us your new-found fervour for humanitarian pseudo-pacifist hand-wringing, muck-raking and atrocity-mongering. Western Trots! We know you! Your Old Man was a killer too! Even liberals can be ruthless if reluctant supporters of lesser-evil empires, in their usual wishy-washy way. Let's take Afghanistan (again). Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele has recently revisited Red Kabul:

I was no supporter of the Soviet invasion. Although nominally a response to an invitation from Afghan leaders, the despatch of Soviet troops in December 1979 was foolish and illegal, as I vigorously argued against an official from the Soviet embassy at a protest meeting at the LSE a few days later. But what I saw in 1981, and on three other visits to several cities over the 14 years that the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was in charge, convinced me that it was a much less bad option than the regime on offer from the western-supported mujahedin.

It's a view that surfaces continually. "Those were the best times," said Latif Anwari, a translator with an NGO in Mazar. Now in his late 30s, he studied engineering in Odessa from 1985 to 1991. "There was no fighting, everything was calm, the factories were working," he said. I asked him about Mohammed Najibullah, the PDPA leader who ruled for more than three years after Soviet troops withdrew. He's universally known as "Dr Najib". "He's still popular. If Dr Najib were a candidate in the presidential elections, he would easily win. No one likes the mujahedin," Latif said.

Dr Najib won't be a candidate in any elections. He was lynched by the muj. We know that. We of the left may suspect that (at however many deniable removes and behind however many financial firewalls) as Christie Moore sang of another progressive doctor, Allende: 'And the good doctor dies/ with blood in his eyes/ and bullets/ from the CIA.' But, taking the most intransigent among us as well as some of the more moderate, those of us who thought - rightly or wrongly - that, in Afghanistan at least, Soviet occupation and progressive dictatorship with all its inhumanities was preferable to the rule of the mujahedin and then the tyranny of the Taliban, surely we can admit in principle that progress can come literally from without and from above, can come even out of the barrel of a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter gunship, can result even from the policies of the venal and self-seeking and short-sighted leadership of a superpower with rivers of unjustifiably shed blood still drying on its hands?

I trust this is an accurate and left-rhetorically persuasive, if sometimes sarcastic, statement of a case that could be put by a pro-war leftist with a Marxist background. It seems so to me. As I read over it I could almost believe it myself.

(When I wrote the above I feared I might be constructing a pro-war Marxist strawman, but apparently not:

Marx and Engels had no difficulty in supporting Polish nationalists against Prussia and the Russian empire, or Irish nationalists against Britain, despite their abhorrence of nationalism, nor in recognising the progressive effects of Bismarck’s activities in helping to overthrow Napoleon III and unifying Germany, despite their awareness of Bismarck’s reactionary policies. Why do contemporary 'Marxists' find it so very difficult to make the elementary distinction that Marx and Engels always made, between the motives of political actors and the effects of their actions?)

Ethically, I don't have a problem with this position. The argument from progressive effect doesn't trump every other consideration for me, but it trumps a lot - not in terms of personal behaviour or emotional identification, but in terms of historical evaluation and political calculation. No one who has more than a smidgin of sympathy with Cromwell and William of Orange, with Lincoln and Lenin (to say nothing of more controversial contenders like, say, Kemal Ataturk or Leonid Brezhnev) has any standing to deplore, however much they may regret, the cost of progress. No one who feels in their bones the uncounted cost of backwardness and regress - the dead babies, the dimmed minds, the thwarted lives, the shit and flies - can weigh it light in the balance.

There are, however, those who can. They are on the anti-war right.

At, along with an unrivalled selection of links to relevant articles in the world press, you can find the arguments of the anti-war right. These are in some ways a mirror image of those of the pro-war left: they agree that Bush and Blair want to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East, and that this is a revolutionary project - and they oppose it. It's none of our business what goes on in Iraq or anywhere else so long as it doesn't threaten our national security. We should get the hell out, now, and let the Iraqis fight things out among themselves. Whoever comes out on top will have to sell us oil. That some neo-cons are former Trotskyists is, for the anti-war right, a telling point against neo-con plans. These neo-cons may call themselves conservatives, but they're still dedicated to the world revolution, albeit this time a democratic rather than a socialist one. And turning the world upside down is still a dangerous, hubristic aim. The rights of Iraqis or Afghans or Saudis are not worth the bones of one US Marine. The backward peoples are not ready for democracy, and even if they were it's not possible to impose it by force.

Needless to say, such arguments aren't handily available to the anti-war left. Some, however, most definitely are:

The fate of thousands of Iraqis is in your hands. Americans, and West Europeans, as residents of the aggressor nations (or, rather, subjects of the aggressor governments), have a particular moral responsibility to act before it is too late. [...] We must raise the issue of Iraq, before our elected officials, and in public forums, oppose the war plans of this administration, and expose the criminal sanctions that are killing Iraqi children. Whatever the crimes of Saddam Hussein, he will have to answer to his own people, and to history, not to some judicial or political authority acting in the name of a "New World Order." Our concern is with the crimes of our own governments, who bomb and starve children in the name of "international law" - and use war as a rationale to expand their own power over our lives.

But the anti-war left does have arguments of its own, and nothing I've seen from the pro-war left has refuted them. There is no need to indulge in conspiracy theories, or to seize on instances - inevitable in the nature of the case - of crony capitalism in the sharing out of reconstruction contracts, to characterise the attack on Iraq as imperialist.

As some intransigiently anti-Baathist and anti-Islamic leftists from the region point out:

The US war is not about Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction as supporters claim, nor is it for the sake of the liberation of the Iraqi people from the yoke of a despotic regime or to establish freedom and justice in Iraq as defenders claim. Nor is it primarily about oil, as some 'anti-American' protesters repeat. Instead it displays the need and greed of the far-right Bush administration to impose, by military means, US supremacy on the world and to make US military intervention everywhere into the "norm" of future international relations. It is a sharp warning to Europe, Japan, Russia and China that after the Cold War the US will no longer allow a bi-polar or multi-polar world order. It will have the last word. Other powers, whether or not they have been "convinced" in the UN Security Council, have to be subordinate to the US as the lone super-power for the years or even decades ahead.

The strengthening of imperialism, of the New World Order, is no small thing. It is to enhance the moral authority and material power of a force that has been, and will be, used against far more hopeful and progressive uprisings, movement and states than those it is now deployed to crush. In even the opposition to it in Europe and Russia, we can see the heat lightning of worse storms to come; of, in the words of Gabriel Kolko, another century of war.

But might not even that be a risk worth taking, if the alternative were to be the triumph of the Islamist reaction?

Yes. I'll give you that. If the fight were really one of Jihad versus McWorld, I'd take McWorld every time. But Al-Qaeda and its ilk are not just a reaction against McWorld, they're a product of it. They are distinctly postmodern movements, whose actual aims (as distinct from their fantasies) are ultimately compatible with Western interests. The West consistently supported them against more enlightened adversaries: the nationalists against the communists, then the Islamists against the nationalists, from Afghanistan to the West Bank.

And the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq aren't exactly helping the actual fight against terrorism, says Newsweek Dec 1 2003:

Administration officials insist that they have not been robbing Peter to pay Paul in the war on terror. Much of what the CIA knows about Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists comes from other intelligence services. The Egyptians or Jordanians are much more likely to get inside an Islamic terror network than the Americans. Countries that don't always observe democratic niceties sometimes have more effective interrogation methods (the Egyptians have been known to closely question a suspect’s family members). The CIA has a pipeline, lubricated by large amounts of cash, to the secret police in various Middle Eastern countries.

Still, the war in Iraq has not helped foster these special relationships. The security services of Middle Eastern despots are not enthusiastic about promises of democratic change coming from Bush, who made clear in his speech last week in England that America would push even its allies to become more democratic. After 9/11, Syrian intelligence began working with the CIA against a common enemy, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which wanted to both overthrow the Assad regime and help Al Qaeda attack the United States. But, intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK, the neocons in the Pentagon have been undermining that relationship by accusing (without much proof) the Syrians of encouraging jihadists to cross into Iraq and of hiding Saddam's WMD inside Syria.

All the tough-minded arguments for liberal imperialism are ones that could have been - and were - used to justify wars that today's liberal imperialists retroactively deplore. The USSR's progressive intervention in Afghanistan didn't turn out too well, all things considered. It's difficult to think off-hand of any future war or intervention in the Second or Third Worlds that couldn't be justified on the grounds of stopping slaughters, freeing prisoners, ending torture. These practices are sufficiently rife that a pretext could always be found for any intervention. Meanwhile, the our-son-of-a-bitch defence is being applied to a new cohort of tyrants whose tortures can be conveniently overlooked, as in Uzbekistan. Nor is it at all likely that anything like a stable democracy could be constructed in Iraq under the Coalition, even if the fighters were to stop, or even if they were defeated (not that they will be).

That the US and UK's present enemies on the ground in the occupied countries are led, where they are led at all, by some nasty pieces of work is not contested by anyone. That there are follies and fallacies on the antiwar side I wouldn't dispute. That the left, notably its older contingents, has a lot of growing up to do I would heartily agree. It is true that the biggest demonstration in British history was politically the weakest and least effectual. It is also true that the reasons authoritatively given for the wars, as opposed to those concocted by their left-wing supporters, were a tissue of lies. The very circumstances in which the present wars are possible at all virtually guarantees that they be fought on the shoddiest of pretexts, against the most disreputable and insupportable of enemies, and opposed by the broadest and thinnest of coalitions.

For what are these circumstances? Overwhelmingly, they are - still, and for the foreseeable future - those created by the end of the Cold War. As was written as long ago as 1991, in The Gory Dawn of the New World Order:

The collapse of the East meant also the demise of the West as its opposite pole, as a defined economic, political, military and ideological entity forged to contain and defeat the Soviet bloc after the Second World War. The old West, both as a concept and as a politico-economic reality, was erected on the basis of the hegemony, or the so-called 'leading role', of the United States. The preservation of this role, or even its extension, in the radically transformed world of post-Cold War politics, is the essence of the American vision of the 'New World Order'.

The Cold War shaped and polarised the world more deeply than we knew. The confrontation between the Free World and Communism, or between imperialism and socialism (as the other side would have it) formed and energised every political difference within the opposed camps. Every needle, every iron filing was lined up, quivering, by that field of force. In the West, the entire left, not just the official Communists but every liberal and social democrat, every Trot and Maoist, every anarchist and impossibilist - however anti-Soviet - stood cloaked in the credibility of the alternative to the East. Whatever names the near or far left called it, however fervently they dissociated themselves from it and its crimes, the mere fact that a nuclear superpower called itself the 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' lent throw-weight and real-world resonance to their similar-sounding words. The jibe 'Go back to Russia!' snarled or sneered at every leftist agitator was itself a back-handed recognition of the first and so far only revolution won by the working class itself. In Britain the SWP may have cheered the fall of what it called 'state capitalism', but inwardly, on the days and nights of that mighty crash, it trembled too.

(Don't let anyone tell you different. Don't let the party's press from August 1991 deceive you. I was in a branch meeting the night the statues fell.)

The SWP survived the fall all right, and may even have increased in numbers, but that's not the point. During the Cold War the Communist Party had, as was often remarked, an influence out of all proportion to its size. The same could be said today of the Socialist Workers Party, but in reverse. Its influence is smaller than its membership.

OK. Back to the real world. So what happens after the Cold War? Well, in the former Third World there are a lot of ramshackle tyrannies whose former position as key players in the great contest has been forgotten even by themselves. The US has lost a role and not yet found an empire. Maintaining hegemony means taking down any of an embarrassingly rich array of malefactors, and (partly by this means) dissuading the emergence of any military rival among the metropolitan countries. New American Century. Full spectrum dominance. Sole superpower. You know the drill.

In this situation it is absolutely inevitable that the targets of choice should be (a) no great threat to anyone outside their borders and (b) a bloody menace to people inside them and (c) completely uninspiring to, if not downright detested by, anyone on the left in the West. Vietnam without Vietcong. It's hardly a surprise that their overthrow should improve matters in the countries concerned, at least in the short run. Whether it's a good thing for the world and for the long run is another matter entirely. I don't know where all this is heading, but I have a very bad feeling about it.

It is also absolutely inevitable that a left that has lost its main real-world reference point and is only slowly realising that it had better offer some more exciting prospect for the glorious future of humanity than wage labour in nationalised industries (or worse, in co-operatives) with or without workers' control etc etc should flounder and flail in its opposition, dream up silly slogans and daft stunts, believe in conspiracies, and all the rest. But, you know, so bloody what? We just have to thole it.

Thin and wide as an oil-slick the 'No Blood for Oil' opposition may be, but in its inevitably inchoate way it expresses a healthy suspicion of the military machines of the great powers. The movement is better than it knows itself to be, and more vital. At each new war it revives, stronger and bigger than before. We can only hope and work for the day it is big enough to swamp the build-up to the next great war, the war that is sure to come.

Well, I'm sure of it, anyway. I could well be wrong about that, and I hope so, but the thought does tend to haunt one a little. Even the possibility makes me very wary of lending an ounce of support to any war, no matter what the immediate effect.

This is why no argument so far presented could convince me to take the position of the pro-war left. I admit to being one of those boring old ex-Trots whose thinking on war and peace was shaped, not only by the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, but by the oft-invoked historical memory of the 4th of August 1914, when the War to End All Wars began, and a world ended. As my oldest surviving uncle once said: 'I haven't believed in God since the First World War.' Most of the left, Marxist and liberal and anarchist, backed one side or another in that war too.

'And the flood came, and destroyed them all.'


It is also absolutely inevitable that a left that has lost its main real-world reference point and is only slowly realising that it had better offer some more exciting prospect for the glorious future of humanity than wage labour in nationalised industries (or worse, in co-operatives) with or without workers' control etc etc should flounder and flail in its opposition, dream up silly slogans and daft stunts, believe in conspiracies, and all the rest.

I'm a bit baffled by this comment. What is there to object to in an economy of workers cooperatives? Sure, its not perfect, but it would be better than what we have now, unlike other systems which have called themselves "socialist". As you said in another article "What I mean by socialism is a working life without bosses and gaffers". Cooperatives, depending on their structure, either eliminate bosses or at least make them democratically elected and removable at the workplace level.

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