Following the Line of Least Resistance:

Imperialist War & Socialist Pretenders

"The struggle against war and its social source, capitalism, presupposes direct, active, unequivocal support to the oppressed colonial peoples in their struggles and wars against imperialism. A ‘neutral’ position is tantamount to support of imperialism."
—Leon Trotsky, "Resolution on the Antiwar Congress of the London Bureau," July 1936

The current U.S. bid to seize direct control of Iraqi oil has shredded years of official cant about the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of differences and the role of the United Nations in mediating disputes within the world community. The American leviathan has made clear its intent to pursue narrow national self-interest without regard for international law, diplomatic niceties or even the sensibilities of major players like Germany and Japan.

This new unilateralism of the U.S., which is resented by America’s imperial allies, has popularized a sort of ersatz anti-imperialism among many in the international radical/liberal circuit. At a recent gathering of anti-globalization activists in Florence for the European Social Forum (ESF), Susan George observed: "After Iraq the US wants a presence in many places around the world. It wants to create a world empire based on economic domination" (quoted in Socialist Worker [Britain], 23 November 2002). The U.S. already has an empire, but George is right that the conquest of Iraq, by tightening U.S. control over Middle East oil, will set the stage for further acts of brutal attacks by the world’s only "superpower."

Bolshevism and Neo-Colonial Wars

Imperialist aggression against Iraq poses a test for every ostensible socialist. The issue is simple, and the Marxist position is unambiguous:

"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 oppressor, slaveholding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers."
—V.I. Lenin, Socialism and War

The Third (or Communist) International, launched by Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the social-patriotic betrayal of social-democratic parties in World War I, set "21 Conditions" for admission, one of which stipulated that revolutionaries in all imperialist countries had:

"the obligation...of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies, of cultivating in the hearts of the workers in their own country a truly fraternal relationship to the working population in the colonies and to the oppressed nations, and of carrying out systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppression of colonial peoples."

This position was upheld by Trotsky and the Left Opposition after the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist International. When Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in 1935, Trotsky immediately responded:

"Of course, we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia, and therefore we must do everything possible to hinder by all available means support to Italian imperialism by the other imperialist powers, and at the same time facilitate the delivery of armaments, etc., to Ethiopia as best we can."
—"The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict," 17 July 1935

Trotsky had no more fondness for Haile Selassie, under whose rule chattel slavery persisted, than revolutionaries today have for Saddam Hussein, a bloody dictator and long-time imperialist asset. But Marxists unconditionally oppose any and all imperialist attacks on "underdeveloped" countries, for reasons that Trotsky outlined over the Ethiopian conflict:

"If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this."
—"On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo," 22 April 1936

Trotsky addressed the same issue a few years later from a slightly different angle:

"In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I am on the side of ‘fascist’ Brazil against ‘democratic’ Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat."
—"Anti-Imperialist Struggle Is Key to Liberation," 23 September 1938

The above scenario is entirely applicable to the present if we substitute "Iraq" for Brazil, and "the U.S." for England. Yet most "Leninist" and "Trotskyist" organizations in the world today regard the positions advocated by Lenin and Trotsky as absurdly sectarian. Their attitudes parallel those of Karl Kautsky, the original "democratic socialist" opponent of Bolshevism, who viewed imperialism as merely a bad policy choice that could be corrected with enough popular pressure.

Healyite Cheerleaders & Iraqi Quislings

While the response of most left groups to the threats against Iraq can be characterized as social pacifist, there are exceptions. The British Workers Revolutionary Party—a fragment of Gerry Healy’s political bandit operation of the same name—hailed Saddam Hussein’s recent 100 percent endorsement in a crudely rigged referendum as "an absolutely unprecedented demonstration by the whole Iraqi people" (Newsline, 19 October 2002). According to the WRP, imperialist bullying has only "succeeded in reigniting the Iraqi national revolution" under Saddam’s leadership, "an achievement that will cost them [the imperialists] dear."

The unfortunate truth is that the brutality of Hussein’s rule has predisposed many Iraqis to welcome the installation of a U.S. puppet regime, or even outright U.S. occupation, a sentiment the Iraqi Communist Party seems eager to tap. In a 28 September 2002 statement entitled "Solidarity with the Iraqi People for Peace and Democracy," these quislings call for "Tightening the political and diplomatic isolation of Saddam’s dictatorial regime" in the name of "human rights."

The ex-Stalinist humanists of the Workers Communist Party of Iraq at least oppose a U.S. attack, but insist on equating Saddam Hussein with George Bush Jr. and refuse to take sides between the two. This view is shared by various "left communists" and anarchists who march under the banner "No War But the Class War!" This leftist-sounding slogan is nothing more than a declaration of neutrality in conflicts between oppressed and oppressor nations. While many youthful militants advocate this formula for Iraq, they do not apply it in the case of the Palestinian struggle against Zionist ethnic cleansers, or Irish Republican resistance to British occupation.

"Mass" Popular Frontist Anti-War Movements

A common view among supposedly "revolutionary" organizations is that imperialist aggression can best be countered by "broad" (i.e., liberal, reformist) anti-war mobilizations. In the U.S. the Stalinophilic Workers World Party (WWP) has been the prime mover behind the big national anti-war demonstrations. In Britain the same role has been played by the late Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and in France by the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR—flagship of what remains of the United Secretariat). In every case the "revolutionaries" get the permits, set up the sound systems, do the publicity, print up the placards and organize the stewards. But political analysis is left to the eminent persons (liberals, social-democrats, clerics and union officials) invited to grace the platform and lend respectability and legitimacy to the event. If members of the "revolutionary" group doing the work appear on stage, they do so as representatives of some anodyne front group and rarely make any references to Marxism, socialism or "revolution." They are never so rude as to criticize any of the guest speakers.

In the U.S., talk of a "broad" anti-war movement means angling for support from "progressive" bourgeois politicians like Jesse Jackson or Teddy Kennedy. At events organized by WWP front groups there are no harsh words for liberal Democrats. Outside the U.S., the reformists’ class-collaborationist appetites are expressed through appeals to their "own" imperialist masters to save Iraq from the wicked Americans. The divisions between the U.S. and its weaker imperialist rivals have no progressive social content—they merely reflect the divergent interests and specific weights of the different national bourgeoisies. The recent furor about "unilateral" U.S. bullying of Iraq, only lent legitimacy to the UN Security Council’s eventual endorsement of Washington’s campaign.

In France, the LCR’s anti-war activity began with a 9 September 2002 call for unity of "all pacifists" (presumably including themselves) in a movement to "force" the Euro-imperialists to block a U.S. attack:

"In the streets, in the workplaces, the neighborhoods, let’s unite the forces of all pacifists. Let’s organize united committees and demonstrations. Let’s force our governments, Chirac and Schröder, to break with Bush and prevent this dirty war."

The LCR initiated a national day of protest on 12 October 2002, based on a joint statement co-signed by 20 organizations that affirmed:

"We do not accept the idea of ‘preventative war’ advanced by the United States, which is absolutely contrary to the United Nations Charter....France must oppose this war. It can and must use its veto in the United Nations Security Council. It must also act with its European partners for a negotiated political solution."
Rouge, 3 October 2002 (our translation)

Bowing to imperialist propaganda regarding Iraqi weaponry, the joint statement also called for "the renewal of global and regional processes of disarmament, particularly in the Middle East...." The LCR was apparently mildly embarrassed by this, but went along with it anyway: "If, in several of its formulations, this call represents a compromise, its broadly united character anticipates the success that can mark the first day of protests...."

British SWP: Social Pacifism’s Best Builders

In London on 28 September 2002, the SWP’s "Stop the War Coalition" (StWC) held a massive demonstration that drew some 300,000 people. Speaking to 2,000 radicals at the recent European Social Forum in Florence, Lindsey German, the SWP leader who doubles as convenor of the StWC, gave it a left spin:

"Lindsey argued that the anti-war movement in Britain was so strong because it had taken ‘a clear stand on the question of imperialism. We understood that this was a war for oil and for US power. We refused to take the view that the Taliban or Saddam Hussein are equal enemies with US and British imperialism.’"
Socialist Worker (Britain), 16 November 2002

However, in an article in the November 2002 issue of Socialist Review, German noted that one of the "important decisions" that laid the basis for the success of the StWC was that:

"It rejected a specifically anti-imperialist programme, arguing that all those who opposed the war, racist attacks or attacks on civil liberties were welcome to join. To limit membership of the coalition to those who had an understanding of imperialism would be to cut it off from a genuninely broad level of support."

It is perfectly principled for Leninists to participate in united fronts with Labourites, pacifists and clerics on the basis of shared opposition to a particular imperialist adventure. But for revolutionaries, such blocs provide an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the Marxist program to muddled reformism. What the SWP has done is organize a "movement" from which any sort of Marxist politics are effectively excluded. SWP interventions in the StWC are carefully tailored to fit the reformist lowest common denominator shared by the Labourites, bishops and union bureaucrats whose endorsements are seen as so important to the "success" of the movement. The absence of any hint of "godless communism" from coalition events also makes it easier for the SWP to pursue a bloc with Islamic obscurantists. Ever since they embraced Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 anti-working class "Islamic Revolution," the Cliffites have been inclined to see a "progressive" side to Islamic fundamentalism (see "Islam, Empire and Revolution," 1917 No. 17).

In addition to Baroness Uddin of the House of Lords, the speakers at the 28 September demonstration included the Reverend Peter Price, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, who took the opportunity to condemn Saddam and commend the "legitimate role" of UN weapons inspectors:

"Let there be no mistake we regard Saddam and his regime as a real threat to his own people, to neighbouring countries and to the world. Saddam must end repression of his people, abandon his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and respect the legitimate role of the United Nations as it ensures that he does."

While the self-effacing "revolutionaries" of the SWP did not appear on the platform in their own name, German, speaking as StWC convenor, told the crowd: "This war is about oil, it is about the strategic interests of America. It is about the rich waging war against the poor." Yet instead of drawing the obvious conclusion—that it is necessary to side with "the poor" against "the rich" (i.e., defend Iraq against the Blair/Bush axis of evil), German made an abject pacifist appeal: "The message of this demonstration is not war under the United Nations, it is no war under any circumstances." However, for revolutionaries the "message" should be that working people and the oppressed have a vital interest in the defense of Iraq.

In her Socialist Review article, German airily suggests, "the Coalition cannot rest until we have stopped the war" and asserts:

"We have the potential to stop war. Bush and Blair have set a determined course and they will not allow one demonstration to stop them. But we have shaken them, and we have the power to keep shaking them until they are forced to retreat, as they did over Vietnam."

Is the SWP leadership foolish enough to believe this, or is it simply trying to energize the ranks? The U.S. retreated from Vietnam because 50,000 of its soldiers who were sent to Indochina to crush a social revolution came home in body bags. Over time, the overwhelmingly working-class and minority youth in the conscript army were becoming increasingly mutinous, and a mood of disaffection with the ruling class and its counterrevolutionary war began to grow. The organization of massive social-pacifist "peace" demonstrations by reformist "Trotskyists," with bourgeois Democratic Party politicians setting the tone, played a negligible role in ending the war, but did help channel popular anger back into the framework of bourgeois politics. The size of the demonstrations provided an index of the extent of opposition to the war, but the overtly anti-imperialist sentiments developing within layers of the U.S. working class, particularly among Vietnam veterans and black youth, found no expression in the official "peace movement."

The most successful "anti-war" movement in history was led by the Bolshevik Party in Russia during World War I. That movement was not built on the social-pacifism pushed by the SWP. Indeed, Lenin’s 1915 denunciation of pseudo-socialists who refused to link the fight against imperialist war to the struggle to overturn the capitalist social order reads like a polemic against the SWP:

"Pacifism, the preaching of peace in the abstract, is one of the means of duping the working class. Under capitalism, particularly in its imperialist stage, wars are inevitable....

"At the present time, the propaganda of peace unaccompanied by a call for revolutionary mass action can only sow illusions and demoralise the proletariat, for it makes the proletariat believe that the bourgeoisie is humane, and turns it into a plaything in the hands of the secret diplomacy of the belligerent countries. In particular, the idea of a so-called democratic peace being possible without a series of revolutions is profoundly erroneous."
—"The Conference of the RSDLP Groups Abroad," 19 February 1915

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), the former American section of the International Socialist Tendency that was excommunicated by the SWP in a squabble over pecking order, is involved in campus anti-war activity in the U.S. The 25 October 2002 issue of the ISO’s Socialist Worker talks about the "drive to expand America’s empire," noting that "even right-wing commentators now refer to... ‘imperialism’." The article criticizes "some well-known voices in the antiwar movement" who have illusions that "U.S. imperialism could wage a ‘just’ war in some cases, but not in others."

But rather than pointing out that in resisting a U.S.-led attack, Iraq would be waging a "just war," the ISO delivers a standard social-pacifist pitch: "Socialists have always played a leading role in the struggle against war—and there’s no reason why this should be any different today." In fact socialists have not always "struggled against war." The Bolsheviks did not propose to "struggle against war" but rather to "turn the imperialist war into a civil war," i.e., a fight for socialist revolution. In Socialism and War Lenin wrote, "we regard civil wars, i.e., wars waged by an oppressed class against the oppressor class, by slaves against slaveholders, by serfs against land-owners, and by wage workers against the bourgeoisie, as fully legitimate, progressive and necessary." Trotsky organized the Red Army that defeated the Whites and their "democratic" imperialist backers, including the U.S. and Britain. Real socialists take sides when imperialists attack colonial or neo-colonial countries—they don’t chatter about a "struggle against war" in the abstract.

LRCI: Working Both Sides of the Street

The British Workers Power group, which, like the ISO, originated in the International Socialist Tendency, presents itself as a serious, orthodox Trotskyist alternative to the opportunism of the SWP. Workers Power, and its co-thinkers in the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI), issued a statement dated 23 September 2002 declaring:

"We seek to stop this war by mass mobilisations that will shake the system to its foundations and topple the warmongers. First and foremost this must happen in the imperialist countries themselves. When fighting breaks out we must call clearly and unequivocally for the total defeat of the imperialist invasion and victory for the Iraqi resistance to it.

"This alone distinguishes revolutionary opposition to the war from those [who] simply call for ‘peace’ or for UN intervention or mediation. The reformist left will oppose us on the grounds that it means supporting Saddam Hussein...."

This sounds pretty good, but only a few weeks earlier Workers Power co-signed an 8 September statement issued by a preparatory meeting of the European Social Forum which stated:

"Those who show solidarity with the people of Iraq have no hearing in the White House. But we do have the chance to influence European Governments—many of whom have opposed the war. We call on all the European heads of state to publicly stand against this war whether it has UN backing or not, and to demand that George Bush abandon his war plans."

Moderately intelligent people might wonder why serious socialists would call for "toppling" a gang of imperialist warmongers while, at the same time, appealing to them to "stand against" war. This is the LRCI’s idea of "tactics"—working both sides of the street at the same time. For these centrists nothing is more important than avoiding "isolation." So when the LCR, the SWP and dozens of Stalinist, social-democratic, Green and other petty-bourgeois groups signed the statement, Workers Power did not want to be left out. Trotsky was familiar with this sort of political double-bookkeeping:

"The correspondence between words and deeds is a distinguishing mark of a serious revolutionary organization. For a serious revolutionary organization, the resolutions it adopts at its assemblies are not mere formalities, but the recorded result of the experiences it has accumulated in action, and a guide for its action in the future. For the centrists, a ‘revolutionary’ thesis, adopted on a ceremonial occasion, is meant to serve as a deceptive decoration, as a cover for irreconcilable divergences in their own ranks, as a cloak for their nonrevolutionary deeds in the preceding period as well as in the period to come."
—"Resolution on the Antiwar Congress of the London Bureau," July 1936

The SWP is happy to have Workers Power aboard its "Stop the War Coalition" and even allows them a seat on its steering committee. Workers Power constitutes a tame left wing which can be trusted to conduct any "revolutionary" activities discreetly and inoffensively. In hailing the "brilliant" 28 September 2002 demonstration in London, Workers Power did not comment on its pacifist political character, nor on the absence of anything approximating the call for "the total defeat of the imperialist invasion and victory for the Iraqi resistance" which it purports to uphold.

A recent (undated) draft "Manifesto for World Revolution" posted on the LRCI web site provides a hint as to how these centrists reconcile their participation as a silent junior partner in a bourgeois-pacifist bloc with their supposed commitment to revolutionary defeatism:

"We do so by building a huge anti-war movement based on the mass organisations of the working class, and rallying around it young people, women, the progressive middle classes and the immigrant communities.

"This movement will probably contain many people motivated by religion and by pacifism. Whilst we will march alongside them against the bosses’ wars, we are not ourselves pacifists. We do not spread the illusion that war can be abolished under capitalism...."

This is immediately recognizable as the hoary old "stages" theory. During the first stage, the LRCI eagerly participates in building a "huge" movement on a pacifist-reformist basis. The anti-imperialist positions the LRCI supposedly champions only become the basis for rallying the masses with the advent of a glorious second stage at some point in the indefinite future. The SWP doubtless offers a similar explanation to any of its youthful supporters who take its revolutionary rhetoric seriously.

Another SL Flip-Flop

The Spartacist League/U.S. (SL) and its affiliates in the International Communist League (ICL) are advocating a position of revolutionary defeatism toward any imperialist attack on Iraq. This represents a dramatic reversal of their assertion in 2001, during the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, that a defeatist position toward the imperialist aggressors was "illusory and the purest hot air and ‘revolutionary’ phrase-mongering" (Workers Vanguard [WV], 9 November 2001). This flies in the face of Lenin’s observation that:

"During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government.

" This is axiomatic, and disputed only by conscious partisans or helpless satellites of the social-chauvinists."
—"The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War," 26 July 1915

At the time, the SL rationalized ditching defeatism on the grounds that the Afghan "Taliban has no possible military redress" (WV, 9 November 2001), but today they acknowledge that, "neocolonial Iraq is in no position to militarily prevail over the U.S. imperialist war machine" (WV, 18 October 2002). So why two different lines? Apparently the SL leadership thinks that the hysteria over the destruction of the World Trade Center has died down enough that it is safe to again be identified with Lenin’s position on neocolonial wars. This is not the first time the SL has flinched at critical moments (see "Where is the ICL Going?", 1917 No. 24), nor is it likely to be the last. As for the SL’s occasional whining about being "chicken-baited," (see WV, 25 January 2002) all we can say is that if the shoe fits, sometimes you have to wear it.

‘No Middle Course’

The assault on Iraq is, at bottom, a link in a chain of predatory struggles for the redivision of the world among the imperialist powers. War is endemic to capitalism and will continue until either the capitalist world system is uprooted through social revolution, or human civilization is destroyed. It is impossible to oppose brutal neo-colonial wars of conquest without addressing the character of the social system which perpetrates them. Imperialism can be defeated—but only through social revolution. As Lenin asserted:

"Instead of leaving it to the hypocritical phrase-mongers to deceive the people by phrases and promises concerning the possibility of a democratic peace, socialists must explain to the masses the impossibility of anything resembling a democratic peace, unless there are a series of revolutions and unless a revolutionary struggle is waged in every country against the respective government.

"There is no middle course. The greatest harm is caused to the proletariat by the hypocritical (or obtuse) authors of the ‘middle-course’ policy."
—"The Question of Peace," July-August 1915

Posted: 26 February 2003