Internationalist Voice and protests in the Middle East

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In August Internationalist Voice posted a position on the ICC's web forum[1] on the wave of protests in the Middle East affecting the countries of Jordan, Iran and Iraq.  It defends fundamental class positions and the proletarian perspective of revolution and, within this, the necessity for the self-organisation of the class against the various traps of the bourgeoisie. The text raises a number of pertinent questions: what is the content of the demonstrations? What is the role and attitude of revolutionaries to these protests? Is there a revolution going on here? What is the role of the bourgeoisie? But on a secondary level there are a number of important ambiguities in the text, particularly on the class nature of these events.

For our part, we do view these protests as expressions of the working class, as part of the class struggle at a certain point of its unfolding. This is not a revolution, but a class that won't fight for its basic conditions of life is not going to make a revolution, and street protests have historically always been part of the class struggle.

The text is fairly dismissive of the protests and strikes in Jordan and underestimates the strengths of both. Like Iran and Iraq, the demands of the protesters in Jordan were clearly demands of a working class struggle: jobs, healthcare, rent, services, against corruption (the latter easily recuperated but in this context part of the indignation of the class). In all three countries, the struggles immediately came up against the trade unions who were ill-equipped to deal with them, including the "new" unions in Jordan set up by the bourgeoisie following the intense wave of struggle a decade ago. Workers actively sought out protesters and were explicit about the unions trying to divide them and keep them away from the protests. For It the protesters here weren't "fully radical", but what does that mean? The protests did seek to join up with workers on strike; and the workers, who refused to be isolated in the factories and places of work by the unions, which can easily become a prison even in the most advanced struggles, joined them on the streets. Indeed we can say that any workers’ struggle that doesnt seek to come out onto the streets cannot advance towards a wider class unity.

So the demands of the class were there and the proletarian method of struggle was there, and while it wasn't a "fully radical" revolution it showed some important indicators of the class struggle, not least the hostility towards the unions, the rejection of the clerics in all three countries as well as the rejection of "national sacrifice". Moreover, the strength of the movement to some extent pushed back the bourgeoisie and obliged it to pause its attacks.

It's clear that there are enormous problems and potential dangers confronting the working class in these countries, coming from the specific forces in play and the wider dynamics of the major imperialisms. The ICC laid out these potential dangers in a position right at the beginning of this phase of struggle in January, though these related to Iran particularly[2]. But, even given the imperialist cauldron of the Middle East, or partly because of it, the combativity of the class is an important starting point and an example to workers everywhere. It is somewhat contradictory about this: it says that there is no future context for these protests but describes how youth "has provided the necessary social force for street protests" and placed the movement squarely in the crisis of capitalism and its attacks. It says that, along with the class composition of those who participated in them, "the demands and objectives of the protests determine the nature of that movement". That's true, but more generally the nature of the movement can also determine its demands and objectives. It seems to want to "fix" situations whereas the nature of these movements is fluid. And It draws a conclusion that's nowhere verified by the facts: "The fact is that... nationalist slogans overshadow the protests". Without underestimating the dangers of nationalism, especially in countries which have been dominated by bigger imperialist powers for a long time, we can say that nationalist slogans in all three countries were by no means the distinguishing feature of the strikes and protests. And even where nationalist slogans are raised, the only way they can be fought is through resolute action on a class basis, which can only bring the workers into conflict with the national interest.

It's on Iraq that the position of It most clearly goes off the rails. The workers are atomised, it says, but the proletariat in Iraq is in "a better position" and from this "contrary to the anarchist view, the power of labour is not on the street but in the workplace where it disturbs the process of capitalist accumulation" and consequently "... if the Iraqi working class stops oil exports, the regime will collapse and the workers will assert their power as a social class".

It’s true that the power of the working class can indeed be to prevent the factories or oil refineries from functioning, but their real power does not lie in the paralysis of the production and the circulation of goods, but in their unification across all sectors of the economy, not by isolating workers from each other through “besieging” places of production, but by spreading a movement and overcoming any attachment to a specific work place.

Indeed, we've seen from specific struggles of oil workers in France relatively recently that concentrating on one sector, even the oil sector, is the kiss of death for class struggle. The lessons of the isolating function of corporatism, which litter the history of class struggle, apply just as much to Iraq as France and everywhere else - isolation and division are the exact opposites of the needs of the struggle.

The oil industry in Iraq has erected many obstacles to the development of class struggle; various countries of the west and Iran and Russia have their installations guarded by their own militias and special Iraqi units have responded ruthlessly against protest around the oil plants. Indeed, mafia-like, the Iraqi militias have put their own soldiers on the books of the oil companies in exchange for "protection", and the Americans and British in the Green Zone fortress unleashed their "anti-terrorist" forces against the protesters in order to protect their own interests.

To make matters worse, Iraq could be descending into a post-Isis[3] phase of fracture, more and more dominated by centrifugal tendencies which are being expressed by the local gangs and manipulated by the major imperialist powers. There is a danger of Iraq turning into another Libya or something like it. Neither nationalism nor democracy are the main cards being played here – rather we are seeing the remorseless spread of capitalist decomposition. The flourishing of various militias in constant rivalry with each other is a clear expression of this, and this could sideline and overwhelm any class movements. In the meantime the response of the Iraqi state has been lethal gunfire, mass arrests and torture.

For It workers in these protests do not have "a clear horizon or class outlook to their aims". But these attempts of street protests and strikes to complement each other are parts of attempts to push forward the collective struggle and It makes a false division between protest and strike, the street and the workplace. The "unclear goals" of the struggle are certainly weaknesses in the sense that they do not yet pose the question of overturning capitalism, but at the same time  the recent protests and strikes in the Middle East should give us encouragement: the willingness to come out and fight is an absolute necessity for the class struggle, not a weakness.

The workers in the Middle East, beset by imperialist war and ethnic conflict, have a particular difficulty in developing a political perspective which looks towards a communist society, and they will not be able to achieve this in isolation from the central battalions of the working class in the heartlands of capital. But this lack of perspective is a problem which affects the working class everywhere today. Workers in all countries are confronted with growing social decomposition precisely because the important waves of class struggle between 1968 and 1989 remained on an essentially defensive terrain. And yet it remains the case, both in the peripheries and the centres, that the extension and unification of defensive struggles is an indispensable basis for any future evolution from the defensive level to the level of the revolutionary offensive.

Baboon, November 2018

[3]  Isis is not entirely defunct and remains a potent force for imperialist chaos in the region.


Protests in the Middle East