Correspondence With Red and Black Notes: Opposition to War Must Avoid the Many Traps of Bourgeois Politics
Earlier this year, Internationalism received copies of two leaflets distributed by the Toronto based Red and Black Notes at the anti-war demonstrations of last winter. In an effort to develop a constructive process of debate and criticism among the various tendencies in the “proletarian political milieu” (PPM) in North America, we have responded to these two leaflets with the letter that we reproduce below. The ICC has always said that the advancement of revolutionary theory can only occur as a result of open and constructive debate within the PPM. We publish our response in an effort to contribute, however modestly, to this process, a process that is an essential precondition for the eventual construction of a proletarian class party. As readers will see, although we salute the internationalist frame of Red and Black Notes’ leaflets and express our agreement on many fundamental points, we also advance some important criticisms and disagreements. This is different from the behavior of some groups in the milieu, who often seem to “flatter” new and emerging groups in order perhaps to curry their favor, rather than point out honestly and unambiguosly their errors and mistakes. If we are upfront in expressing our disagreements with some of the formulations in Red and Black Notes’ leaflets, this not done out of any desire to be sectarian. Rather, debate and disagreement are the lifeblood of the PPM, its dialectical motivation to advance and develop. Nevertheless, even if we ultimately conclude that there is much more that unites our perspectives than divides them, we still have the responsibility as revolutionaries to see that our differences confront one another openely and clearly so that mistaken ideas may be discarded, correct positions may be reaffirmed and new syntheses produced in the light of criticism. We encourage all other groups in the milieu to embrace this work fully as well. This is in the tradition of all the great revolutionaries of the past and is the necessary condition for our success in the future.
Full copies of Red and Black Note’s leaflets may be obtained by contacting them at:
Red and Black Notes
Po Box 47643
Don Mills, ON
M3C 3S7 Canada
We have discussed the two leaflets you prepared and distributed at the Toronto anti-war demonstrations during the lead-up to the recent war in Iraq (“A Plague on Both Your Houses” and “No War But the Class War”). In the spirit of open debate, we would like to take this opportunity to share with you some comments and criticisms.
First, we want to salute the effort you have made to distribute these leaflets at the recent demonstrations. Your intervention was undoubtedly quite out-of-step with the main themes of these demonstrations, which in our analysis were all situated well within the realm of bourgeois politics. Your defense of proletarian internationalism in the face of both the official bourgeois pacifism of the demonstrations, as well as all the accompanying leftist calls to defend one imperialism against another, clearly demonstrate your desire to defend a working-class perspective on war in this historical period. In particular, your denunciations of the Trotskyists and leftists were to the point. For example, in " A Plague on Both Your Houses" you write, "For others on the left, it's about defending imperialism. This has led some, most notable the Trotskyists, to claim opposition to imperialism in this conflict means support to Iraq in the hopes of bloodying the nose of the 'main' imperialist power (…) While sounding radical, the position is essentially a lesser-evilism. (…) Capitalism is a world system, and the wars it generates are wars between the greater and the lesser imperialist powers for the right to exploit and rule. Yesterday's national liberation movements fighting against imperialism are today's exploiters of labour and tomorrow's allies of larger powers. (…) We will not choose between the greater and the lesser powers.
Moreover, your denunciations of all the belligerent parties of World War II, or as you call it the “second imperialist world war,” shows a stern refusal to fall for the bourgeois ideological justification for this war, that of defending “democracy” against fascism, a call that was repeated throughout the twentieth century not only by the official parties of bourgeois order, but also the Stalinists, Trotskyists and many anarchist currents as well; and which is being deployed in full force by the world bourgeoisie today. For us, and—as it would appear from your leaflet—for you as well, the proletariat had no side to choose in this war either. The following passage from " A Plague on Both Your Houses" demonstrates this internationalist commitment particularly well, "The second imperialist world war between 1939 and 1945 claimed tens of millions of lives. But the 'peace' that followed it also claimed untold millions of lives across the globe, as capital has engaged in low level, and sometimes not so low level wars to preserve the imperialist 'peace.' It is the peace of the grave. The only way to stop war is to uproot the capitalist system."
We believe that whether openly fascist or cloaking itself in democratic verbiage, all factions of the ruling class have been equally reactionary since the entry of capitalism into its decadent phase at some point early last century. The rejection of the defense of “democracy” is for us a key component of any attempt to defend a proletarian perspective today. We thus think that your leaflet might have been made stronger if you expressly argued that the proletariat never has any interest in taking sides between different fractions of the bourgeoisie, that there are no circumstances in which a tactical exception should be made to a “united front” policy, no matter what the ideological justification.
Moreover, despite our agreement with your leaflets’ internationalist framework we do find a number of instances in which our analysis of the Iraq war differs from yours to some degree. For example, you seemed to argue that the main reason behind the war is to be found in the US’s failing economy. By going to war, you seem to say, the American bourgeoisie was seeking some sort of “shot in the arm” for its current economic woes. In a Plague on Both Your Houses" you write, for example, "While few in the Bush administration argue that the war will revitalize the sagging US economy, it is precisely that economy which is pushing the US toward war. Trillions of dollars of debt, a stock market bubble that is about to burst and a plunging US dollar, make a war to secure massive oil reserves, and a commodity which is paid for in dollars an irresistible prize."
These assertions seem to go down the same path as the IBRP's, which argues that by taking over Iraq’s vital oil reserves, the American bourgeoisie is seeking to safeguard the international oil trade in dollars against the encroachment of the Euro. While we agree that oil is an important strategic commodity in the world economy and an important pawn on the inter-imperialist chess board, we do not think that the US decided to go to war to gain control of Iraq’s oil reserves out of any immediate intention to improve its economy, to reap super-profits or to combat the challenge of a currency-war between mounted by the European Union.
In our view, the decision to invade Iraq was the latest in a long series of military interventions that the US has been compelled to make stretching back to the First Gulf War and the collapse of the old Eastern bloc. Essentially, since the collapse of its Cold War rival, the Western bloc has ceased to have a raison d’être. Since this time, what we have witnessed are all the second and third-rate imperialisms that used to follow “bloc discipline” challenging more and more the leadership of the old bloc hegemon, the US. Faced with the collapse of bloc discipline, but still the world’s only superpower, the US has since been forced to engage in direct displays of its military power, as an attempt to keep its erstwhile allies in line. What we witnessed in the lead-up to the war in Iraq only confirms this analysis with France, Germany and Russia—the powers with the most to loose from a US take over of Iraq—protesting the loudest. In this sense, the importance of oil in this war is to be found more on the strategic level—with the US now strengthening its military presence in an area of the world upon which Europe and Japan are depended for oil—rather than for any immediate quest to reinvigorate a struggling economy. You seem to hint in the direction of our analysis, for example in "A Plague on Both Your Houses", "While the US's erstwhile European allies are expressing reluctance, it is only because they see the US's actions as a way to strengthen its position relative to their own through the seizure of Iraqi oil and the establishment of a semi-permanent US base in Iraq;" and again in " No War But the Class War!" "For France has its own reasons for opposing the US, and they have little to do concern for the Iraqi people; rather, they concern the French imperialist state's position vis-à-vis the US." Nevertheless, it does seem as if you never quite get away from the idea, mistaken in our view, that this war was about the US economy itself, or a currency rivalry between the US dollar and the Euro.
In fact, as we have shown in our press, the US intervention in Iraq can only have a negative effect on the latter’s economy forcing it to attack the living and working conditions of the working class even harder. We think that your leaflets' analysis of the origins of the war, with its focus on immediate economic factors, leads you towards some false predictions which underestimate the gravity of imperialist rivalries at this historic juncture as well as the primacy of strategic considerations in the international relations between states: i.e. the idea that the European powers would jump in and participate in the war along with the US. For example, in "A Plague on Both Your Houses," you write, "Nevertheless, the reluctant allies will likely get on board because they fear the US will go ahead and they will be left out in the cold."
For the most part, this wasn’t the case, because for countries like France, Germany and Russia had just too much to loose if the US were to strengthen its grip in the Middle East with a direct military presence in Iraq. In fact, as we wrote in our press, part of the American bourgeoisie's strategy in the lead up to the war in Iraq was precisely to raise the ante in its confrontation with its erstwhile allies by picking a fight with which these countries could not even pretend go along, and thus forcing the confrontation between the US and countries like Germany and France into the open. On the other hand, the idea that there is an emerging confrontation between a US led-bloc and a new bloc based on the European Union—a possible conclusion of seeing the war as the result of a confrontation between the dollar and the Euro—is for us a bit premature. While this may appear to be the case on the surface—and this is often how the bourgeois media on both sides of the Atlantic presents it—for the most part, however, we think the EU is little more than a sad fiction when it comes to exhibiting a united foreign policy. This was also confirmed by the lead up to the Iraq war, with a number of European countries supporting the US policy against German and French opposition.
On another level, we also feel that your leaflets tended to overestimate the current balance of class forces on the global level. As such, your calls for workers to engage in direct action tactics like sit downs and go slows against the war seems to us to be both premature and unrealistic. For example, you write in "No War But The Class War!," "And while only a full-scale break with capitalism can create a new world, resistance can be practiced on multiple levels: absenteeism, informal work to rule actions ("go-slows"), even occupations and creative industrial repairs."
While calls for workers to reject the war are perfectly legitimate in the historic sense and perfectly in line with an internationalist denunciation of imperialist war, we think it is important not to fall into the illusion of thinking the "revolution is right around the corner" today, or that a massive working class struggle against the war is likely on the immediate agenda. What we are seeing today is that much of the global proletariat is still struggling to recover its class identity after the collapse of the Soviet-bloc and all the accompanying calls of the “death of communism” and the "disappearance of the working class”. What we are witnessing now is a process of the "subterranean maturation” of consciousness in the class, where through its daily struggles against capitalist exploitation and the intensification of the austerity measures—which the bourgeoisie is compelled to impose faced with a permanent global economic crisis—the proletariat is slowly coming to recognize the connection between the drive to war and the capitalist system itself.
We think it is through these daily struggles at the point of production, on its own class terrain, where the working-class can recover its class identity and come to possess a revolutionary consciousness of the need to destroy the capitalist state and build a new society. That is why in our intervention we called on workers not to abandon their economic struggles in the face of war, not to allow either war or pacifist propaganda to distract them from the class struggle. We felt there was some tendency in your leaflets to call on the working-class to engage in an immediate “political” struggle against the war. For example, you argue in "No War But the Class War!," "If actions against the war were significant and the battle in Iraq does not go smoothly, it could provoke the kind of break down in authority in the armed forces as was seen in Vietnam: desertions, mutinies and a concern for one's own survival over that of the unit. Were these conditions to take shape, the imperialist war might well begin to resemble a civil war."
Once again, while this is a perfectly legitimate call as part of a general internationalist political line, it is, in our view, important not to fall into the trap of endorsing the idea of a "working-class anti-war movement", in today's context. For us, revolutionary class-consciousness can only rise from a unity of the economic and political aspects of the class struggle, and this is a process that unfolds in an historic and political context on the global level. Today, the conditions are not such that we are likely to see the type of movement you seemed to call for in your leaflets, and as such these calls could end up legitimizing the idea of "working class pacifism." This could possibly end up inadvertently reinforcing the bourgeois anti-war movement. Once again, this does not mean that revolutionaries should cease to call on the class to resist the war simply because it is not, at the moment, a realistic prospect; we only mean to point out that it is crucial to avoid the temptation towards an immediatist euphoria based on some isolated instances of workers appearing to struggle against with the war, such as demoralized troops criticizing their commanders or workers refusing to load trains and ships with war supplies. Many of these actions occurred on the terrain of the capitalist unions, while others were perfectly in line with the policy of certain fractions of the national bourgeoisie. While we would be among the first to salute such actions, were they to take place on the class's own terrain, we think it crucial to always keep the historic context in mind, avoid any temptation towards immediatism and try to analyze such events with a critical eye to situating them in a global context. We do not think there is a difference of principle between Red and Black Notes and ourselves on the internationalist and revolutionary defeatist framework of our intervention towards the class, but we think your leaflets may contain a certain overestimation of the reality of the class struggle at this juncture. While the historic course towards decisive class confrontations remains open, the proletariat still confronts major difficulties in finding its own class terrain in the period ahead.
Despite these differences and criticisms, we nevertheless fully support the internationalist and proletarian basis of your intervention and extend our full solidarity with your effort. We look forward to further correspondence in the future and would welcome any comments or criticisms you may have of the recent issues of Internationalism we have sent you, or correspondence on any other political question.