Correspondence from Red and Black Notes on the Causes of the War in Iraq
Thank you for your letter of July 22, 2003 containing a critique of two leaflets I produced for anti-war rallies in Toronto in the spring of last year. I regret that until now I have been unable to reply to the comments and criticisms raised in your letter.
To begin with, I want to agree with you that it is important for revolutionaries (both those in formal organizations and those operating as independents) to discuss in a comradely fashion, points of difference about the world situation and theoretical interpretations. Such a free exchange of views is important for the de to development of political ideas and for the clarification of our viewpoints. All too often, such debate degenerates into sectarian sniping and point-scoring, rather than actual discussion. In this spirit of discussion, I want to reply to the issues you address in your letter.
The anti-war mobilizations in Toronto in the winter and spring of 2003 were no different from mobilizations in New York and elsewhere. In terms of the banners carried and leaflets distributed, the spirit of events was overwhelmingly of a liberal nature. Indeed, in the first significant mobilizations, even United Nations banners were displayed The incidence of UN banners decreased as the conflict became imminent, but they were replaced by religious pacifism.
The 'far left,' in Toronto, represented mostly by the mainstream Trotskyist groups, largely promoted these pacifist ideas; although, if one wanted to look closely, mentions of capitalism could be found. The largest leftist group, the International Socialists (linked internationally to the British Socialist Workers Party, whose slogans and orientation they parroted), were in many cases the marshals of the parade and the promoters of the worst illusions about the nature of the war. At the first demonstration after the beginning of the war, a spokesperson for the IS, masquerading as a spokesperson for the anti-war coalition called for a boycott of American goods and services, and urged the crowd to buy Canadian goods because Canada was not supporting the war!
While many leftists echoed the liberal line "war is not the answer," others definitively opted to support one side in the conflict. The International Communist League (the Spartacists) and the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) organized around support for Iraq - the irony of the Spartacists naming their supporters in these mobilizations "The Revolutionary Internationalist Contingent" seemed to be lost on them.
However, within these demonstrations, there were small forces of internationalist opposition to the war. Together with other communists and some class struggle anarchists in Toronto, I helped to distribute materials of a revolutionary opposition to the war. In addition to the two Red & Black Notes statements, material by the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, the International Communist Current, and Internationalist Perspective was also distributed. These comrades also organized meetings in Toronto and Montreal under the heading of "No War But the Class," which featured speakers from Red & Black Notes, the IBRP, and the North Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists. It should also be noted that the Toronto group also produced its own leaflet in January of 2003 entitled "No to Capitalist War! No to Capitalist Peace." This leaflet, along with the ones produced by Red & Black Notes can be found at the Red & Black Notes web site along with a reply by the International Bolshevik Tendency and a rejoinder to them. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that while these efforts were important, they represented a very small voice in a dark time.
Before dealing with the criticisms of the leaflets, I want to deal with a couple of questions you raise. As you correctly assume, I reject both the "democratic" and the "fascist" sides in the Second World War, just as it was necessary to reject support for either side in the current conflict in Iraq. Capital is a global system, and the cause of the working class is not advanced by support for either the lesser imperialist powers against the larger ones, or the "democratic" capitalists against the "dictators." This policy is in stark contrast to the Trotskyists who, for all their anti-imperialist rhetoric, see nothing wrong with supporting bourgeois governments in their conflicts with larger powers. The IBT for its part took no side in the conflict between Iraq and Kuwait, yet hurried to defend Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003. Its rationale being, it is about "defeating imperialism" (in reality, supporting a small imperialist power against a larger one). In my reply to the IBT I asked, but received no reply, what would have been the logical extension of this policy for Iraqi militants: support Saddam Hussein? (militarily not politically of course). And would they advocate the shooting of deserters ("like pigeons"?) as scabbing on the defense of an "oppressed nation?"
It is necessary here to make a small correction in your article You quote the leaflet "A Plague on Both Your Houses" as stating "for some it's about defending imperialism," whereas the actual line was "for some it's about defeating imperialism," referring to the Trotskyist argument that the job of revolutionaries was to defeat the imperialism (and here they meant Iraq). My use of the phrase was intended to be ironic; nevertheless, the error does not affect your point.
Despite the general agreement in the framework of revolutionaries toward the attitude in the conflict, we clearly have some differences about the base cause of the war and minor tactical points within it. In the two leaflets I produced, it is argued that the root cause of the conflict was the crisis in the American economy, a position you likened to that of the IBRP who argue that this factor and US control of the oil markets are the key ideas. In contrast, you assert that the key factor was the collapse of the other global superpower and the US' need to assert its hegemony as against its European and pacific-rim rivals.
To begin with, I do not disagree that there is an element of "superpower" politics at play in the conflict, just as you do not deny the importance of economic factors. However, it seems that the US' actions, despite the national economy's weakness, are dictated from a position of strength. In your letter, you argue that the US' decision is based on the lesser imperialist powers challenging the US leadership, and the US needing to "engage in direct displays of its military power, as an attempt to keep its erstwhile allies in line." You further argue that my argument underestimates "the gravity of imperialist rivalries." However, in the following paragraphs you admit that "while there is an emerging conflict between the US and the EU, this is premature and the EU is a "sad fiction when it comes to exhibiting a united foreign policy." If this rebellion of the lesser powers was the impetus for the US to act, where was it coming from and who was leading it? I agree that France and Germany were the loudest voices in opposition, but as I noted in "A Plague on Both Your Houses" it was because they saw the US designs in strengthening its economy at their expense. While you argue that I have overstated the short-term economic impetus to war, it seems that you may have overstated the political.
Your letter also sees the "economic" explanation my view the holdouts would eventually fall into line for fear of losing out. While this expectation was largely unfounded, it has been negatively confirmed as the US has acted to punish those who did not send troops by withholding the lucrative contracts. Canada in particular, which has traditionally played the soft-cop peacekeeper under UN auspices, has been left whining about being denied contracts. If Germany and France had too much to lose by not going along, given the US' initial success, has discipline been strengthened or weakened?
As to the tactics which should be offered, I think you may have misconstrued their function. In the closing paragraphs of "No War But the Class War" leaflet, I suggested a number of possible scenarios which could take place. If my leaflet has led you to believe that I was putting forward a program for the working class to take up in resistance to the war, then I regret this impression. Obviously a few leaflets on the Internet or distributed in a crowd of tens of thousands will not be the "spark" which brings the revolution. These comments should not be likened to the call to arms made by many leftist organizations. I do not suggest that the revolution is around the corner, and to a large extent the actions did not go beyond the terrain of bourgeois politics.
However, it is important to remember that such actions could have had an important impact. Even the case of the UK firefighters strike, which did not ultimately transcend the union form, created a panic with the UK's ruling circles as it threatened to interfere with their war plans. While revolution is not always the end product, the class struggle can always be seen. As your statement of March 2003 correctly notes:
"The working class is not a mere passive victim of war. It was the mass strikes and mutinies of 1917-18 which brought the first world war to an end.Today the working class struggle can only be a defensive one. But it contains the seeds of an offensive revolutionary struggle, of a class war against the whole capitalist system."
Despite our differences on these questions, I look forward to further exchanges and discussion.
N, Red & Black Notes, 2-15-2004
The website for Red and Black notes can be found here.