The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, December 29, 2003


For the sake of the argument

I and Norman Geras seem to have struck our spades on different bedrock. To caricature (in both cases, but of his more than mine): I say 'It was an imperialist war!' He says 'It was the liberation of Iraq!' I say 'But it was an imperialist war!' and he replies 'But it was the liberation of Iraq!'

Instead of persisting in this particular argument, within which I have at the moment nothing much new to say, I'll continue to argue against the war, and add to my sidebar links to Norman Geras and others (some on different sides of this argument) with whom I don't necessarily agree but whose writings make me, and I hope will make you, think.


The laughter of Carthage

'Weapons of mass destruction or no weapons of mass destruction, it's important to step back a little bit here, to see what we have done historically,' says Paul Bremer, after inadvertently trashing Tony Blair's latest claims. 'We, the coalition, the British and American people, have done a noble thing by relieving 25 million Iraqis of one of the most vicious tyrannies in the 20th century.'

Is regime change in itself a justification for the war?

I don't think so, for the following (and other, but already repeated) reasons.

In the first place, it's always wrong to lie to the soldiers. People who went to war to defend (as they thought) their own country, in the absence of a real threat to their own country, are not subsequently vindicated in what they have suffered and inflicted by the liberation of another country. I can't begin to express how wrong I think this is. Actually, I can: it's murder to send someone to their death or disability for a lie; it's theft to take taxes paid for national defence and spend them on (someone else's) national liberation. There are plenty of Iraqis who will say the war was worth it for getting rid of Saddam. They were all, in different and often appalling and unspeakable ways, victims of Saddam, but (and this is a terrible thing to say, but it seems to me true, so I'll say it) their opinion solely on the question of the war, and not that of the nature of the regime has less moral weight than is sometimes claimed. When it came to the regime's overthrow they weren't the ones who paid the butcher's bill. They are, by definition, the survivors and beneficiaries of the deaths and injuries among both the invaders and the invaded. The war was worth it for them. If they weren't willing to die in their streets, why should hundreds of Western (and other Coalition) soldiers and uncounted thousands of Iraqi conscripts and civilians die in their stead?

In the second place, it's always wrong to lie to the workers (or the people, if you prefer; not that there's much difference, in this our Capital Volume One world). Popular support in the metropoles for the war was predicated on the belief that Iraq presented a real and imminent threat. It didn't. An immense amount of lying was indulged in on this matter. That no decisive majority support was authoritatively sought for the war on the basis of regime change is evidence (not conclusive, but suggestive) that none would have been found. Deceiving democracy at home is a bad way to spread it abroad; relying on ignorance, disinformation, and chauvinism is a rotten plank for a platform of enlightenment.

Thirdly, it's by no means given that the overthrow of the dictatorship is the same as the liberation of Iraq: a state which, as Churchill put it, united two widely separated oilfields by uniting three mutually antagonistic peoples. An independent (Kurdish) north is unacceptable to Turkey (and to the region's non-Kurdish residents); an independent (Shia) south would gravitate towards Iran, which is unacceptable to the West and the Saudis; and majority rule means a Shia republic, which is unacceptable to the Sunni heartland. Iraq can only exist as a state if it's ruled from Baghdad; it has only ever existed as a state when dominated by the Sunnis; and it can't cease to exist as a state without further (national or civil) wars, or a revolution across the region. In the meantime, what exists under the occupation is an anarchy that fills graves faster than the immediately preceding (though not, of course, the less recent but still burning) years of tyranny. The proposed, and in part implemented, solution of integrating into the new security forces the militias of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Iraqi National Council, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Iraqi Communist Party is ... well, you can see the problem.

It's possible, of course, that in the months and years to come Iraq will become as free, independent, and democratic as, say, Turkey; and if it does so as a result of the occupation, rather than as a result of a successful revolt against it, I'll admit that at least my worst suspicions were wrong. But for now, I doubt it. And even then, I'd hear down two millennia the laughter of Carthage.
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Wednesday, December 24, 2003


Losing the specific in the general?

To my chagrin, Norman Geras has successfully skewered a key bad move in my response to his earlier argument against my post on the pro-war left.

(Cue meta-argument.)

Looking over the above sentence, two things strike me about it. One is that its successive references to previous rounds make me recall with unwonted affection the textual protocols of Usenet. The other is that it seems almost frivolous in its politesse. Why treat an argument over bloody, serious matters as if it were (only) a philosophical disagreement?

For one thing, philosophical disagreements can be bloody serious. ('"The Battle of Stalingrad was the decisive confrontation between the heirs of the Right and the Left Hegelians." Discuss.') For another ... well, several others ...

First, Norman Geras is (in the teeth of some provocation on my part, albeit not intentionally personal) himself being polite. This is something I want to reciprocate. (Not that I have any fine feathers to preen here. I learned to argue the way I'm trying to do now by repeatedly doing it the other way, and finding it didn't work. There are posts on Usenet at the reminder of which I still blush. And - electronic retrieval being what it is - they'll probably be around long after I and all my books are dust.)

Another is that (moving from the general to the specific) I owe the guy. How well I remember sweating and swaying on the London Underground to and from work, poring (literally) over Geras's Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend. It wasn't the first work of what might loosely be called 'analytical Marxism' I'd come across - that was G. A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence - but it was the first to alert me to the value of a close reading of a Marxian text blunted by over-familiarity. (Philosphers speak of 'unpacking' a statement. This was more like defusing what remains, ticking, when all the innocent items have been lifted out.)

Finally, I think this is an argument worth persisting with. It makes me think, in a way that few have before, that some premise so far unexplicated is mistaken, on one side or the other (or, possibly, both). I don't think it necessarily has anything to do with Marxism. People of every political persuasion have been (in variant proportions) divided over the war. There are probably fascists arguing over it. More seriously, it does a disservice to clarity to suggest (as I have, by picking on those few who argue in Marxist terms) that 'the pro-war left' is an eccentric minority. In a broad, but far from the most catholic, sense of 'left', the Iraq engagement is a war of the left, and the present argument over it one within the left.

(Which raises the question: to what extent is everything in Western democratic discourse an argument within the left? Some years ago, I half-seriously suggested that the Second World War just was the long-awaited world proletarian revolution - the decisive plebian victory in the 'battle of democracy' - and that (almost) everything since has been a conflict between the 'Maoists' and the 'capitalist roaders' within what is to all intents and purposes the dictatorship of the proletariat: The West is Red! Cooler heads prevailed, but ... )

I'll try to make a better stab at Norman's argument after Christmas has worn off, and in the meantime wish him a good one.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2003


Seasonal notes

On the twelfth day of Christmas my spammer sent to me:

Twelve te.ens s.ucking
Eleven webcams prying
Ten spam blockers
Nine Nigerians scamming
eight Vi.agra bottles
seven h0rny sch00lgirls
six pen.is extensions
five Russian brides
four broken urls
three travel offers
two bigger breas.ts
and a parchment phony PhD.

By the way, does anyone else think the original 'true love' was a stalker? These days you'd expect six expensive bouquets, five suicide threats, four silent phone-calls, three love letters, two doorbells ringing and a spy-cam in a pear-tree.
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From our own correspondents

Jeff Weintraub corrects a careless rhetorical excess on my part:

Najibullah was not killed by any of the Mujahedeen factions supported (directly or indirectly) by the US, but by the Taliban. When his regime collapsed in 1992, he found diplomatic asylum in the UN compound in Kabul, where his protected status was recognized by all the Mujahedeen groups. In 1996, he was seized there and tortured to death by the Taliban, when they captured Kabul. I can't imagine any plausible reason to think that the CIA had a hand in this, however indirectly.

Point taken, with thanks.

TJIC opines:

[...]Israel is exactly the kind of society that one might expect to find 50 years after a bunch of Ken-MacLeod-ian socialist engineer technocrats headed into a desert with weapons and terraforming equipment.

No, I don't know what he means either.

Svein Olav Nyberg:

Beating spammers to death with baseball bats is a terrible idea. But
beating them to death with v.i.a.g.r.a. bottles and pe.nis exten.sors may not be.


From me, best wishes to all my correspondents and readers for a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
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Monday, December 15, 2003


After Saddam

The announcement of Saddam's capture was a global electrifying moment, as much so as the toppling of his statue, the opening of the war with the firing at him of forty-six cruise missiles all of which missed, and the Columbia space shuttle crash.

Good bloody riddance to the butcher. I hope he gets tried in Iraq, by Iraqis. As Iraq's Communists rightly celebrate, it might be a good time to take a look at their rather nuanced analysis of the postwar situation.

Not that I necessarily agree with all of (and all the tactics that flow from) that analysis, but that it has been arrived at by a party which - whatever else may be said about it - is a significant and historic part of the Iraqi left, is enough to show that, pace the pro-war left, it was possible to both oppose the war and to welcome (and earlier to fight for) the downfall of the dictatorship, even though that resulted from the war. It also, in the interview linked to above, makes very clear that the fall of a dictatorship is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for democracy or liberty. (Not that anyone referred to below would dispute that.)

Norman Geras has criticised my argument that the war strengthens imperialism as follows:

This is an argument I've encountered several times in debating with anti-war friends, and the problem with it, as far as I'm concerned, is the way in which it loses the specific in the general. Because of the general character of US power as projected by opponents of the Iraq war, we must oppose a course of action which leads to the demise of the Saddam regime. Why can't we not oppose that, and - yes - oppose the same power if and when it is used against 'more hopeful and progressive uprisings, movement[s] and states'? Because by then it will have been strengthened? But that's strengthened by having rid the world of one of its most ghastly regimes. So we must put the present and proximate future of the Iraqi people in the balance against a long-range (and doom-laden) projection of the global future, and put the specificity of how American power is used here or there, and now, against the generality of what it is fixed as being in its very essence. Some of us felt unable to make that call.

This is, of course, a fair point, and I'll try to answer it. While I may not have expressed it clearly enough, I don't think my objection turns on opposing the specific to the general, or the real present to the speculated-upon future. First, this particular war is avowedly part of a long-term project to establish unchallengeable US hegemony, a project that in the view of many people - not just Marxists - threatens much wider wars, including (and yes, this is speculative) against other advanced capitalist states. That a war that is overall reactionary (or otherwise disastrous) can have progressive (or otherwise good) effects is not new, and abstracting these effects from their context isn't a new mistake, particularly and regrettably for socialists. Second, the concrete situation on the ground in Iraq is not simply one of the Coalition forces on the one side and supporters of the old - or some new - tyranny on the other. Indeed it's all too possible that even without Ba'athist or Islamist resistance, the occupation itself could be the catalyst for a slide into a worse situation than that before the war. As it is, even entirely peaceful trade union organization finds itself up against the the occupier's boot.

For that reason among others, I think it's quite important for people in the occupying countries to oppose the occupation in principle, while supporting in whatever way they can whatever social and political forces they regard as hopeful and progressive in the occupied countries, and preferably to do so in an intelligent manner, though that last may be too much to hope for in some cases.

Which brings us to the next point:

In the same way that the generality of American power swallows up the specificity of its use, Ken MacLeod has (I don't know, I guess) the benign intentionality, or assumed teleology, of the left diminishing the significance of its mistakes. He speaks of 'silly slogans and daft stunts', and says 'so bloody what?' - as if the left hasn't had to pay a rather heavy price in the past for some of the very conceptions at work in this supposed silliness and daftness.

What I meant by 'so bloody what? We just have to thole it' was that (given the background I outlined) stupidity is something to be expected and endured and fought against within the antiwar movement, not something that has to be accepted or used against it. The idea, for example, that there's some relevant analogy between US/UK imperialism versus Saddam Hussein (or the Taliban) on the one hand, and Italian fascism versus the empire of Haile Selassie (the Nelson Mandela of his day) on the other, is indeed grotesque. But it's a distortion, or perversion, of anti-imperialism rather than a betrayal of the victims of Saddam's regime. It's a correctable, though shameful, error. Errors on the side of support to imperialism are hardly ever correctable. That slope is too slippery, and the social gravitation too powerful, to be easily climbed back.

So without diminishing the significance or the price of the antiwar left's stupidities, compared with the monstrous misconception of the pro-war left that some justification for supporting the invasion of Iraq can be found in the words or deeds of Lenin or Trotsky they are as dust in the balance.
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Tuesday, December 09, 2003


Complications of Empire

From Afghanistan, a first-hand account of a complex situation.

On Iraq, Seymour Hersh reveals plans for a new Phoenix Program, advised on an equal-opportunity basis by former Mukhabarat officers and Israeli counter-insurgency specialists. Meanwhile, a popularly elected council in Karbala is brushed aside in favour of an alleged Ba'athist official, and US forces effectively withdraw from Samarra.

Respected Marxist scholar and pro-war leftist Norman Geras compliments and criticises my post on the pro-war left; I'll reply later. [Note: You'll find the above referenced post there, but Norman Geras has now moved his blog here.]

The antiwar right hosts an interesting academic panel on preventive war and empire.
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Monday, December 08, 2003


Oh, and another thing ...

I've expanded, but otherwise barely changed, the post below.
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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 Antiwar.com, 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.'
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Friday, December 05, 2003


Ya think?

The US sub-editing tic of using a comma in headlines instead of 'and', as well as that of using a headline as a statement of the bleeding obvious, always make me feel as if I'm reading The Onion rather than, say, The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Detention of Iraqis creates hostility, resistance. Who knew?

The guerrilla war is spreading outside the Sunni Triangle, according to The Boston Globe, while The Spectator's man on the ground in Samarra thinks it's not, yet. Random shooting of Iraqis creates hostility, resistance. UPI gives what purports to be a look inside a resistance cell, revealing a more complex picture of divided and shifting loyalties than you might expect. Mistreatment of Iraqis creates hostility, resistance.

John Pilger exposes the myth of BBC objectivity.

All via, of course Antiwar.com.

Free clue: these days you can read Mao's military writings on a frigging website, guys and gals.
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Thursday, December 04, 2003


Another Grassy Knoll


Further evidence that the real movers and shakers of the world are not conspiracies, but conspiracy theorists. (Via Antiwar.com).
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Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Discovering Mansoor Hekmat

Perry Anderson, in a review of G. E. M. de Ste. Croix's monumental The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, remarked that the first surprise about the book was the name of its author. The constellation of British Marxist historians had been, one had assumed, 'a finite pleiad'. The names of Hill, Hobsbawm, Thompson, Thompson et al were familiar, but who le heck, as it were, was de Ste. Croix?

I've just had a similar surprise. I had thought I knew at least the names of all the great Marxists. I was wrong. A notice of a public meeting to be addressed by a speaker from the Worker-communist Party of Iraq led me to the website of it and its older sister, the Worker-communist Party of Iran; and thence to the collected works of its founder, the late Mansoor Hekmat. It's a bit like discovering you had an unknown contemporary called Rosa Luxemburg.

I can't say I've been altogether unfamiliar with the current that calls itself 'worker-communism'. When I lived in London in the 1980s, some people from Iran or Iraq would intervene in demonstrations or meetings with arguments quite foreign to those of most exiled revolutionaries. Instead of asking for help, they offered it, in the form of trying to clear up the confusions of the left. For people to descend from the mountains of Kurdistan with sophisticated Marxist critiques of not just the Iranian but the Western left was unheard of, and almost unnatural.

Now I can see where they were coming from. To many readers a body of work whose first item is titled Iranian Revolution and the Role of the Proletariat (Theses) might seem recondite, if not quite uninteresting. This would be a mistake, and one the reason for which was spelled out by the writer himself, in explaining his differences with most of what has passed for Marxism in recent decades:

The Marxist theoretician has been reduced to one who can reply to people who have declared in advance that they belong to the same doctrine. Outside this milieu, outside this given 'market', our theoretician is not even a worthy and influential thinker and critic in his contemporary world. In fact, even from the viewpoint of intellectual calibre and theoretical capacity he is usually a second-rate thinker.

[...]

His/her thoughts have an inside-the-sect consumption and have significance by virtue of the sect. Leave out Maoism and you will have no Bettelheim in the realm of critical thought. In my opinion, communist theory - and thereby the communist theoretician and critic - should assert itself as the critic of ruling ideas. Rather than acting as a mere guide for its disciples and followers, it should explain the world for the vast masses of the class and play its part in shaping the general class consciousness.

Having read those of his works that have been translated into English, I would claim that Mansoor Hekmat was indeed a thinker who lived up to the challenge he sets here. For him, as for Marx, socialism wasn't some ideal the world had to take or leave, but a conscious expression of the spontaneous resistance to, and rejection of, the wages system by the wage-earning class. From this standpoint he could develop a critique of the whole world - East and West, North and South - and a practice that sought to change it. The alternative to socialism, he said, was 'nothing but barbarism gift-wrapped in technology.'

He outlined, before (in substance, long before) the fall of the East, an original and radical socialist critique of the Soviet experience, one that made no concessions to the once-fashionable abuse of Lenin:

The applause for the downing of Lenin's statues is not out of hostility to a paralyzed and defeated state-capitalist bloc in the East. They are pulling down Lenin as the symbol of [the] working class's insolent attempts against the sanctity of capital; the symbol of the struggle of downtrodden working masses for changing the world.

To debate a fundamentally nationalist current, as Stalinism always and everywhere is, about its deviations from Marx would, he said, be as futile and ultimately frivolous as disputing with racists over their misappropriation of Darwin. A characterisation of the Soviet Union (and all the rest) as state capitalist simply dropped out of the logic of his analysis:

Today, in order to regard it a socialist country, the defenders of the Soviet Union point to the absence of bourgeois personal ownership over the means of production and the predominance of state ownership in this country. A large section of the critics of the Soviet Union also accept this definition of socialism but spend all their time and resources to show that 'the Soviet state is not proletarian', and thus the state ownership in this particular case is not tantamount to socialism. To reduce socialism to state economy is truly a bourgeois falsification in Marxist theory. It is this version of socialism which the bourgeoisie spreads throughout the world. Unfortunately up to now this fundamental distortion in the economic vision of the working class has not met any serious theoretical challenge by the Marxists.

Pivotal to such a bourgeois conception of socialism, is the bourgeois assessment of capitalism. In this outlook, capitalism is recognised not on the basis of the labour-capital relation but on the basis of the relation of capitals to each other. It is the outlook of an individual capitalist, and thus a bourgeois attitude to capitalism. Competition and anarchy in production is considered to be the basis of capitalism. And therefore in opposing it, as the anti-thesis of capitalism, state ownership and planning is placed. This is a common conception. For Marx, and for us as Marxists who have grasped the essence of Marx's criticism of the political economy of capitalism, it is simple to understand that capital is defined in the domain of social production and on the basis of its relation to wage-labour.


[...]

The prevalence of wage-labour, the predominance of labour-power as a commodity and the organisation of social production on the basis of wage-labour, are all sufficient to prove that the Soviet economy is a capitalist economy.

Consequently, in his view this social formation's final capitulation to the market wasn't the end of socialism:

This was not the end of socialism, but was a glimpse of what a nightmare the end of socialism could really be and what a swamp the world could become without the herald of socialism, the hope of socialism and the 'dangers' of socialism.

In The History of the Undefeated he lashed those who took the fall of the Soviet Union as a clarion call to desert the struggle for a better world:

Despair became the symbol of wisdom. Forsaking high human ideals was seen as a sign of realism and insight. It suddenly became evident that any newly appointed journalist and assistant lecturer or any recently retired general had ready-made answers to the intellectual giants of the modern world from Voltaire and Rousseau to Marx and Lenin and that the entire complexities of freedom and equality seeking and the efforts of hundreds of millions of people in recent centuries, was nothing more than a complete waste of time on the road to the grand monument of the 'end of history' that must be forgotten ever so quickly.

[...]

It is said that history is written by the victors. It must be added, however, that history, which is written by the defeated is ever [even?] more false and venomous, since this latter is nothing but the former dressed in mourning, surrender and self-deceit.

He counterposed freedom to the slippery ideal of democracy. His criticism of religion was unsparing, as was his contempt for those who pinned progressive hopes on it:

A hundred years ago, the avant-garde humanity would have laughed at the proposition that human liberation could be achieved through priests, moderation of religion and the emergence of new interpretations from within the church. Today, sadly, 'professional scholars' and academics can prescribe that the Iranian woman can for now take secularism to mean the addition of a lighter shade of black to the officially approved colours for the veil.

He called - controversially - for the defence of children against the imposition of the veil:

The question of freedom of clothing concerns adults, i.e. those who, at least formally and legally, have the right to choose and can face the consequences of their choice -- even though the-right-to-choose of an adult woman who is familiar with the threat of the Islamic knife or the Islamic jar of acid on her face is as formal as formal can be. The argument for the freedom of clothing says nothing about the rights of children or the little or adolescent girl who lives in an Islamic family under the custody of her parents.

[...]

The child has no religion, tradition and prejudices. She has not joined any religious sect. She is a new human being who, by accident and irrespective of her will has been born into a family with specific religion, tradition, and prejudices. It is indeed the task of society to neutralise the negative effects of this blind lottery. Society is duty-bound to provide fair and equal living conditions for children, their growth and development, and their active participation in social life. Anybody who should try to block the normal social life of a child, exactly like those who would want to physically violate a child according to their own culture, religion, or personal or collective complexes, should be confronted with the firm barrier of the law and the serious reaction of society. No nine year old girl chooses to be married, sexually mutilated, serve as house maid and cook for the male members of the family, and be deprived of exercise, education, and play. The child grows up in the family and in society according to established customs, traditions, and regulations, and automatically learns to accept these ideas and customs as the norms of life. To speak of the choice of the Islamic veil by the child herself is a ridiculous joke.

His four-part article on The World After September 11 may live as his testament:

The media does not reflect the real intellectual and ideological makeup of the world. They give their own version, the dominant version, the version of the ruling class. A version that suits them. Militarism, terrorism, racism, ethnicism, religious fanaticism and profit worship are headline news but do not have a firm place deep down in the minds of the majority of the people of our times. Even a cursory look at the world shows that the vast masses of the people are more to the left, more altruistic, more peace loving, more egalitarian, more free and more freedom-loving than governments and the media. The people on both sides of this appalling conflict have no desire to dance to the tune of the leaders of the bourgeoisie. The gunslinging American administration immediately realises that despite one of the most horrendous terrorist crimes, despite the live broadcast of the perishing of thousands of people in an instant, despite the sorrow and rage which takes hold of anyone who has not sold their conscience to some material interest, still this same horrified western society, these very people who are daily brainwashed, these very people who are from dawn to dusk 'educated' by the ruling ideology of racism and xenophobia , call for "caution, fairness, justice and a measured response". The people of the Middle East who are conceived as zealous Moslems and members of the 'Islamic civilization' - be it in the sick minds of clerical rulers in Iran and Afghanistan and the assorted sheikhs of the Islamic movement or in the deluxe studios of the CNN and BBC - are mourning with the people of America and rising in the condemnation of the genocide of September 11. It does not take a genius to realise that the majority of the people of the Middle East despise political Islam, that huge segments of the people of Western Europe and America are fed up with Israel's injustices and sympathise with the deprived people of Palestine, that the majority of western people want an end to the economic sanctions against Iraq and can put themselves in the shoes of heartbroken Iraqi parents who are losing their children to shortage of medicine, that the vast masses of the world's decent and honourable people are on neither side of the war between Bush and Bin Laden - old friends and present-day rivals. This civilised humanity has been silenced under the barrage of propaganda, brainwashing and intimidation in the West and East, but it has clearly not accepted the garbage. This is a massive force. It can come to the fore. For the future of humanity, it must come to the fore.

He goes on to challenge the conventional interpretations of what is at stake in what he calls 'the war of the terrorists'. (Clue: the US is not fighting to defend civilization, spread democracy, or grab oil. The Islamists are not fighting imperialism.) The failures of the 'war against terrorism' and the weaknesses of the - immensely positive - antiwar movement are described in advance, with a view to arming 'the camp of humanity' with a strategy for victory, and with it peace.

I've only scratched the surface of his writing. His theoretical range was extraordinary. But, as was said of Marx, the man of science was not even half the man. He was 'above all else a revolutionary.' With all his evident humanism he didn't flinch from 'the criticism of arms'. Certainly the successive regimes he fought - that of the Shah, and that of the Islamic Republic - have rivalled in the depth if not the scale of their vileness anything seen in the bloody history of the modern world. For his fight against them he deserves every decent person's respect. Even those who disagree with what he stood for may find much to agree with, or to productively argue with, in what he wrote.
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