Revolutionary intervention and the Iraq war
Now that the butchery and destruction of the US military intervention in Iraq has been declared officially over, it is time to make a brief balance sheet of the various claims made in Britain to provide a political alternative to imperialist war. We won't bother here with the huge marches against the war in Iraq, organised by the Stop the War Coalition that was supported by leftists of all descriptions as well by the Labour Left, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Daily Mirror and others. They not only did not prevent the war taking place but also gave it a green light. By mobilising millions behind the illusion that a peaceful imperialism was possible they proved to the executive organs of the state that there was no effective counter force to the imperialist juggernaut.
Instead, we will make a short report of those meagre forces that tried to base themselves on a working class perspective, realising that the only alternative to imperialist war is not an illusory peaceful capitalism but the violent overthrow of capitalism itself. No War but the Class War - London
The story of the group with this radical sounding name is essentially a tale of two cities, London and Sheffield.
The NW group in London was formed in the wake of the war in Afghanistan. In a leaflet given out toward the end of 2001 (note 1), it declared that the official pacifist or leftist opposition to war was a fraud, that capitalism as a whole was responsible for war, and that therefore a class alternative was required, and called for meetings to gather like-minded individuals. But beyond this apparently promising beginning, this group had no other reference points, and admitted that "it didn't have all the answers". In particular its response to the following questions would remain unclear: what is a class movement against war, what form should it take? Was such a movement possible at the present time with the present balance of class forces? What role should NW play: was it itself the class movement, was it a discussion forum for all the contradictory forces that were not taken in by official pacifism, or a political group with a definite programme? What relationship should it have to the existing internationalist groups of the communist left?
Unable to make the clarification of these issues the group's central concern, the conflicting tendencies within the group were destined to go in different directions. Within the group there were all kinds of approaches: activist tendencies who thought that the role of its meetings were to organise stunts of direct action, and others who were more in favour of discussion but in the form of 'workshops' rather than plenary debates, parasitic elements who were motivated by hostility to the presence of groups of the communist left, etc. The ICC, which regularly attended its meetings, far from trying to 'take the group over' as some have implied, argued for an open confrontation of political differences.
Towards the end of 2002, while the new Gulf War was still brewing, the group, or perhaps just the activist part of it, evolved, without explanation, into another one called 'Disobedience'. At the same time the clique-like tendencies of the rest of the group became predominant and the communist left as well as the Sheffield NW group were effectively excluded when the details of the London group meetings became a secret! So much for the NW claims that: "we reject hierarchy, and we strive to reach decisions by consensus" (note 2). From now on the 'class war' in London was to be waged behind closed doors.
The London NW thought they could be a political group without a programme or statutes, a discussion circle without being open to discussion, and a mass movement without any class support. After initially presenting itself as a reference point for those searching for class positions, NW ended up as a black hole of confusion and dispersal, at worst a radical appendage of the Stop the War coalition. What is a class opposition to the war?
Although the London NW adopted the word 'class', it used this word rather like the erstwhile anarchist group 'Class War' and other so-called class struggle anarchists. For them the working class is not defined by objective historical economic and political interests, but subjectively, as a collection of individual rebels who become a 'class' movement essentially by an effort of will. In a leaflet handed out to a Disobedience 'Anti-War Day School' (note 3) NW presented its vision of 'class opposition to the war':
"War is part of the capitalist social relation. We 'make' war, just as we reproduce the rest of society through our work and the reproduction of our social relations through our daily compliance in all spheres of life. Going to work. Giving over money for the goods we buy. Turning up for detention at school. We make the munitions. We make the bomber planes, etc.
�What is really needed is not so much an 'anti-war' movement against this or that particular show massacre the telly happens to be flaunting at us to terrorise us (�) but a subjective revolt against the social conditions in which we are living. This undermines the warmongering economy."
Isn't this a variation on the old anarchist idea that the working class is responsible for capitalism and war because in normal circumstances it conforms to the daily requirements of the 'social relation'? According to this 'theory' all the working class has to do is to refuse the demands of capitalism and the war machine and hey presto, a class opposition is born.
However capitalist relations of production exist independently of the will of individuals, and have shown themselves resilient to many of the mightiest class movements in history, let alone the episodic nuisances of individual acts of rebellion and sabotage. Only the seizure of political power by the working class on a world scale can begin to destroy capitalist relations of production and the imperialist war they engender. Only the very real threat of the extension of the Russian Revolution to Germany in 1918 obliged the two imperialist camps to sign the armistice that ended the First World War. This only temporarily delayed the imperialist appetites of the great powers. With the defeat of the revolutionary wave, the counter-revolution in Russia left the way clear for the build up to a new world slaughter.
In the end the NW equation of 'subjective revolt' with 'class opposition to war', has the same ideological basis as official pacifism even if it uses a more radical language. If you think that war can be 'undermined' within capitalism by a collection of individuals refusing the 'social relation' of war then Not in My Name would be a more accurate name than No War but the Class War.
With 'subjective revolt' as the main criterion it's only a short step to seeing a revolutionary class movement - workers' councils even - in the uprising in the South of Iraq after the first Gulf War, which was dominated by reactionary Shiite nationalism, or a proletarian insurrection in the Kurdish nationalist movement in the North. The 'Disobedience against war' broadsheet for the February 15th 2003 demonstration was not afraid to take that step. No War but the Class War - Sheffield
In Sheffield, a NW group was formed in the summer of 2002 on a decidedly clearer basis than the one in London. Not surprisingly, as the group was influenced by the Communist Workers Organisation, a group of the communist left, and agreed to 7 points (note 4). In the presentation to the inaugural meeting, in contrast to the confusion mentioned above in London, the essential parameters of the working class struggle and imperialist war were outlined, and the differences with leftist and nationalist forces were delineated. The objective basis of the revolutionary struggle of the working class and its solution to the problem of war is clarified:
"There is only one class which can overthrow [the capitalist system which leads to barbarism and war] and that is the working class however much it has been written off (and it has been written off many times before even by so-called socialists from Bernstein, through Marcuse to Gorz) it is the one global class that is collectively exploited by capitalism. Its struggles alone tend toward a collectivist solution for humanity's problems."
On this basis it is shown that the proletarian movement, as in the case of the left of the Zimmerwald movement during the 1st World War, "called not for an end to war, not for a 'just peace' as the majority at these conferences did but for it to be turned into a civil war to overthrow the system that is behind the war." (note 5)
Nevertheless, despite this marxist clarity against the ideas of 'subjective revolt' and the idea of 'opposition' to war in itself, found in the London group, Sheffield made some serious errors. It completely overestimated the present capacity of the working class to hinder the war in Iraq, and connected to this, imagined that NW itself could ride on the crest of this proletarian wave. At the same time, as in London, the nature, role and function of the group itself was ambiguous. According to the CWO, defending the orientation of the Sheffield group:
"Operating in Britain, we are currently in a position marked by two main factors.
Firstly, there is a reactionary 'popular front' - type movement capable of mobilising hundreds of thousands of non-class conscious workers who subjectively have identified with a task of stopping 'their' government's drive to war.
Secondly we are witnessing a significant upturn in strike action, including firefighters, rail workers and actions beyond the Unions in transport and hospitals in Strathclyde.
'No War But the Class War' gives us the potential to work across the country with those forces who see a connection between the two and wish to link class struggle with resistance to imperialist war. This is no easy task with forces being geographically scattered and emerging from a range of political perspectives.
We believe that in the last months of 2001 the London NWBtCW group was positioned to stand at the organisational centre of that process. Under the influence of K the rump group has turned their backs on that task." (note 6)
While the Sheffield group could see that the mobilisations against the war in Iraq were on a reactionary footing, it nevertheless imagined that by linking them to the current strikes, they could be turned into a class mobilisation against imperialist war with NW, no less, at the controls.
But none of the elements of this equation added up.
Workers who have been demobilised, even in their millions, by pacifist marches, cannot in the same period be mobilised on a class basis. For all their appearance of combativity, these marches were a sign of the domination of capitalist ideology over the working class, the victory of nationalism, democracy and human rights over class consciousness. Workers' actions in the recent period, notably the firefighters' strikes, have been significant for their disorientation and dispersal, factors that permitted government and unions to use the strikes as an opportunity to further attack conditions of work and threaten redundancies.
These two elements of the situation added together, far from pointing to class combustion, or providing an obstacle to the war preparations, expressed in a complementary way the working classes' difficulty to react to the development of imperialist tensions as a whole.
While it is true that the activities of parasites in the London group - like the 'K' that the CWO refer to - certainly contributed to its debacle, and prevented it from being an open discussion group, it was not this factor, or its general political confusion, which mainly prevented London NW from being 'at the organisational centre' of a mass class movement against the war. It was because this movement couldn't exist in the present situation, and those with internationalist class positions were destined to remain in a tiny minority.
The Sheffield group was inevitably headed for disappointment. The reactionary themes of the 28 September 2002 demonstration - Palestinian nationalism for example - completely drowned out the internationalist class slogans which NW mistakenly thought should be shouted within the ranks of the march itself and could have a significant influence on it. The working class 'upturn' failed to materialise.
Disillusionment could only increase as the war approached and the isolation of internationalist forces from the 'anti-war movement' became clearer. Intervention of the ICC
For all its supposed idealism, the ICC kept its feet on the ground when it judged the potential of the working class struggle in the context of the build up to war in Iraq. Our belief in a historically favourable balance of class forces - the working class is still a barrier to the generalisation of imperialist war amongst the major powers - doesn't mean that the working class has the immediate potential to physically stop each conflict, or hold back the tendencies to increasing militarism. It is still a latent threat that prevents the bourgeoisie from taking their mutual antagonisms to the ultimate stage, with all the draconian measures that this implies. Confidence in the historic capacities of the working class is vital in order to maintain a sober view of the immediate, day-to-day possibilities of the class struggle, which the bourgeoisie exaggerates or obscures according to its own agenda. At present the working class is going through a long period of disorientation that began at the beginning of the nineties with the collapse of the eastern bloc.
Nevertheless the historic possibilities of the proletarian movement, coupled with the growing seriousness of the world situation, are presently giving rise to small numbers of people looking seriously for revolutionary answers.
This is why we never thought that the NW was a harbinger of a resurgence of class struggle or a definite class political movement that we had 'joined'. It could at most be a reference point for a very small minority that were asking questions about capitalist militarism and the elitist and pacifist frauds that accompany it. And this was why we defended its -albeit limited - class positions against the reactionary attacks of leftists like 'Workers Power' (note 7) and insisted from the beginning on the importance of the group as a forum for discussion and warned against both the tendencies to 'direct action' and to closing the group to revolutionary organisations.
"�the ICC has more than once emphasised the need to discuss the most basic question posed by the war: what is meant by a class response to war in this period. To us it appears that this is almost taken for granted, but it would be extremely dangerous to do so�.
There are times when decisive action is required and further discussion becomes a hindrance. But there are also times when the priority of the moment is to reflect, to understand, to analyse, to clarify." (note 8)
And at the same time we argued that the Midlands Discussion Group should not abandon its role of theoretical research and debate in order to follow the confused NW 'model'.
Its true that we ourselves overestimated the capacity of NW to intervene in the situation when we suggested that NW hold a counter-meeting at the end of the big pacifist marches in order to attract a wider audience; this expressed a certain underestimation of the hold of pacifist and democratic ideology on the demonstrators.
Our general prudence toward the possibility of a class movement against the war did not however mean that the ICC became 'monastic'. On the contrary the ICC has been the most prominent communist left organisation defending internationalist class positions against the stream of the huge anti-war protests not just in Britain, but across Europe, in Australia and the United States, both through public meetings, its territorial newspapers and the International Review and through an international leaflet that was distributed immediately the war on Iraq began.
There is nothing triumphalist in this still modest class intervention. On the contrary the whole communist left - what we call the proletarian political milieu - is doing less than it could and should be doing. It should have carried out a joint intervention toward the class on the basis of its commonly held internationalist positions. Once again the other internationalist groups rejected the appeal of the ICC for such a common stand (note 9). Yet such an affirmation of basic unity today would be profoundly important for the long term development of proletarian consciousness and struggle.
In the shorter term, given the confusion and waste of energies represented by the No War but the Class War experience over the recent period, a more cohesive presence of the communist left is all the more vital as a reference point for those questioning imperialist war.
(1) Reproduced in Revolutionary Perspectives 27, Quarterly magazine of the Communist Workers Organisation, page 10. Back
(2) Idem. Although the London NW had gone through a similar fiasco in 1999 after the Kosovo War when its predecessor voted to exclude the ICC, we considered that the rebirth of the group in 2001 could still provide a forum for revolutionary debate. See WR 228, Political parasitism sabotages the discussion, October 1999. Back
(4) "1) The creation of other groups in other cities. 2) Ultimately we would like to see this coordination become International and internationalist by reaching other countries. 3) these groups to be active locally in opposing STW and the Socialist Alliance and any other left manifestation that sporadically claims the title of revolutionary. 4) These groups also to take on the anti-globalisation movement and draw those in it toward class politics. 5) These groups also engage in discussion and debate to deepen our understanding of where we stand in the process of change and how we can then help to create the conditions to bring it about. 6) These groups would organise discussions between different tendencies as a part of our ongoing activity. 7) NWBTCW doesn't limit its activity to theoretical discussion or mobilising for demonstrations but actively works to take its message into every area where workers collectively congregate." Revolutionary Perspectives 26. Back
(5) Idem. Back
(6) Revolutionary Perspectives 27. Back
(9) See International Review 113, 2nd Quarter 2003. Back