Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Reply to Workers Power


I am glad that you have decided to set out your differences with the Hopi project in a principled and reasonably clear manner. The document “Hands off the people of Iran: campaign for action or propaganda bloc?” (all quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from this article) compares favourably with the hysterical response of the Stop the War bureaucracy, and the internally-contradictory sect-cohering cynicism of Workers Liberty, to name but two.

Political Centres

There are differences that are not really differences, in my view. Most of the arguments on the relationship between Hopi and Stop the War are rendered effectively null – we could not intervene as a group in StWC if we wanted to (as indeed we do – it was only in response to our application for affiliation that we were excluded, remember). The exclusion of Hopi and Communist Students from Stop the War was nakedly absurd at the time, and is not worth going over again – Workers Power and Revo’s support at the time was appreciated.

It seems that the comrades behind your document are suffering some confusion over what exactly constitutes a “political centre”. This does not designate the organisational structure into which the anti-war movement is placed, but the programme at its heart. Hopi and StWC are not two different potential/actual political centres for the anti-war movement. Of those two, in fact, only Hopi has that potential - the StWC is an entity far broader than its strict programmatic adherents (remember the absurdity that the CPGB is affiliated, while Hopi and Communist Students are excluded for being CPGB fronts!). The StWC leadership, rather, is the current political centre. This was why we were excluded – we were not setting up an alternative to Stop the War, but an alternative to Andrew Murray and the SWP inside Stop the War.

This leads on to an important difference between, certainly, the CPGB and its hopes for Hopi (and the StWC) and Workers Power. Your comrades mention the run-up to the Iraq war, where you raised the slogan “victory to Iraq”. In the CPGB, our slogan was a little less direct, but substantially no more “third-campist” – “rather the defeat of imperialist forces than their victory”.

The reason for the similarity is quite simple – while Saddam Hussein and his cohorts were a direct enemy of the oppressed masses in Iraq, they certainly were not comparable in terms of the scale of their threat to the forces of American and allied imperialism, and no less dedicated to the well-being of those masses (as is blindingly obvious as the skulls pile up five years into the war, but was quite clear then after 10 years of sanctions); one does not need to be a full-blooded “revolutionary defencist” to see that.

The reason for the distinction is a little more obscure – while an unqualified “victory to Iraq” implies[1] support to the Iraqi state, political or military (I will get onto the usefulness or otherwise of that distinction later), the call for the defeat of the imperialists leaves open the question of the agency of that defeat. This is important – only a force with genuine mass popular support and participation can have a chance of defeating the most heavily armed state in the world. If the Republican Guards were to manage to bog down the American tanks in the desert and liquidate all infantry forces and shoot down enough planes, they would have needed that kind of mass support. Saddam’s forces had earned only contempt from the workers and oppressed, and thus collapsed. The comparative success of anti-US militias since then has been a function of the utter hatred of the Americans that runs through Iraqi society – in this situation, literally anyone who stands up to them can command some kind of support from the people at large. Yes, a victory for the Iraqi state would be preferable to the victory of the imperialists – but the Iraqi state was in no position to produce that victory, so enshrining that agent explicitly or otherwise in a slogan is misleading.


The more important difference alluded to above is a general one of approach to anti-war work. “We are socialists,” your authors opine; “the STWC is a mass anti-war organisation that unites many different forces that are not - trade unions, bourgeois pacifist groups, such as CND, religious groups, including Islamic groups, Labour against the War, and so on.” The consequence is not just that linking two slogans, against the war and against the Iranian theocracy, is incorrect, but that your own approved slogan is inappropriate too, “because this would limit the antiwar movement to its explicitly anti-imperialist elements”. Rather, we should march (and do a great deal more than march, as you have correctly argued) on the demand for “immediate and unconditional end to the wars and occupations” (I would prefer withdrawal of Coalition forces, but there you go).

I believe that this is correct as far as it goes, but the reasoning is awry. It is correct because actions are not general but specific – an anti-war action is generally against a war, and if one is marching against a war, the principled demand is for the defeat of the appropriate side (your own state, or an imperialist state). The demand for the defeat of US/UK forces is, for comrades in those countries, a concrete demand for all deployed troops, tanks, ships and planes to come scurrying home forthwith. They will not do so unless they have been defeated, either by political sabotage from anti-war demonstrations or the impossibility on the ground of further serious military operations. “Victory to Iraq/Iran/wherever” is inappropriate simply because it is wrong, and implies confidence in the named state to deliver that victory.

If we are to limit our slogans to preserve the breadth of support to the anti-war campaign, then why should we stop at the “immediate and unconditional” end to deployment? Why stop at that level of principle? It would be easier to keep on board a number of good, sincere activists of the liberal-pacifist type (often people who are pro-direct action), who want a staged withdrawal to avoid “chaos”, or a UN “peacekeeping” force to replace the US for a time. It is obvious, moreover, from the circumstances surrounding the periodic cessation of the “Troops Out Now” demand that it excludes the Military Families Against the War milieu, too.

It is also the case that the forms of action have a political content of their own. To put it more concretely – it is clear that Workers Power’s demand for anti-war strikes was inadmissible for very significant sections of the anti-war movement, not least the labour bureaucracy! Bringing industrial action into the question has the necessary effect of energising the movement into one of direct class-struggle, and that is something alien to a great deal of that constituency that is not “explicitly anti-imperialist”. Should Revo not have left that demand at home, or perhaps attempted to organise strikes itself (or in coalition with other class struggle anti-imperialists)?

The watering down of slogans, in the end, is the practice characteristic of the SWP/Murray axis, and is in no way politically superior to the watering down of actions. By contrast, the task of Marxists in an anti-war campaign is to be the enemy of pacifism and other bourgeois tendencies, and turn it into an anti-imperialist movement. That means raising principled anti-imperialist slogans as much as the need for militant tactics. Although I’m glad you haven’t on a cynical level, Workers Power should be bringing “victory to Iran” to StWC AGMs! You do not need to take my word for it. Were you to consult the fundamental document of Trotskyism, the Transitional Programme, you would find plenty of calls for the Trotskyists to aggressively counterpose their own anti-imperialist programme to those of the reformists, Stalinists and bourgeoisie and, while Trotsky’s demands are far from perfect, there’s no denying that it’s heady stuff – “not one man and not one penny for the bourgeois government”; “substitution for the standing army of a people’s militia”…

What about combining different slogans, however, with different emphases – “no to war, no to the theocracy”? Here, it’s worth stepping back a little.


Imperialism[2] is commonly defined, after Lenin and Hilferding, as the “highest stage” of capitalism, the epoch of the fusion of banking and industrial capital into finance capital, the creation of the great monopolies, and consequently the decline of the always-limited powers of the law of value to regulate production in a rational way; consequently, it is the epoch of massive expansion of territorial empires, of the export of capital and the political domination of the world by the metropolitan bourgeoisies, and of catastrophic outbreaks of war.

This flies in the face of the obvious – it is clear that the set of territorial empires that exploded into the First World War, for example, are not novel to the epoch of trusts, monopolies etc. but go back to the very birth of bourgeois power. Many were themselves based on feudal relations, or at least a political culture borrowed from feudalism (significant elements were present everywhere but France in the 19th Century). As manufacture and ultimately industry begins to grow, so does the need for colonies and their raw materials (particularly in the case of small countries such as Britain), but more importantly, so does the need for a world market (though this, too, is present from day one – the price of wool on the world market was responsible for the Enclosure Acts which constituted the opening shots of proletarianisation in England, described vividly by Thomas More’s Hythloday).

Just as the domestic market requires a State to enforce contracts and a generally stable environment, the world market requires order between nations. This has resulted effectively in the need for a hegemon state - first Britain, then the USA. Fundamental to capitalism is the hierarchy of nations. Competition between nations for hegemony, and the consequent increase in military production (a sector necessarily much closer to the state than others), drives the centralisation and “trustification” of national capitals, and results in inter-imperialist war. Where inter-imperialist war is rendered problematic, the fight is conducted through proxies.

A subsidiary consequence of all this is that as soon as a national bourgeoisie assumes power, wherever they are (imperialist centre or ex-colony or semi-colony), their immediate interests lie in integration into the world market. Since integration into the world economy relies on the hegemony of a state or bloc of states – that is, of the imperialist states – there is a very powerful tendency for national bourgeoisies to act in the interests of imperialism. “Left-nationalists” are isolated and dispensed with.

There are two matters of fundamental consequence for communists:

  1. Imperialism is an unmitigated and continuous catastrophe for the workers movement. To the very limited extent it is capable of anything “progressive” (ie, the building up of productive forces in particular primarily-extractive industries in semi/colonies), it is relatively reactionary compared with the possibility of proletarian socialism. Communists must resist imperialism and imperialist actions wherever possible.

  2. However, non-imperialist states are class-divided entities. The bourgeoisie and its “unproductive consumers” in the state-repressive and state-ideological apparatuses are objectively bound towards collaboration with one or more imperialist states – the ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’, as the Stalinists would put it, is simply a comprador class in waiting. Anti-imperialist strategy must also be co-ordinated towards breaking the masses from their rulers, through agitation on the ground and solidarity work abroad. This is the best thing about the TP on this point – the demand for the popular militia and the drawing of sharp class lines.

For these reasons, I find that the distinction between “military” and “political” support is a bit pointless. I do not believe that the standard CPGB critique – that Workers Power or whoever has no weapons or international brigades to send to Iran or wherever, and therefore their “military” support is in fact a sort of political support – really gets to the heart of the matter. It is plain that Trot “military support” is a call for actual military support, just as the CPGB is not actually a party (which has to be a serious chunk at least of the working class) but a call for a party. My objection is simply that it does not point to a politically important distinction. In the textbook case of China 1925-27, had the Comintern given only military support to Chiang instead of signing the bastard up, they would still have been physically liquidated. This was the one aspect of Mao’s strategy not worthy of the bin – he realised that the Kuomintang was an intractable enemy, and began military operations against it.

A far more useful approach, for me, is the simply-phrased demand for the maximum possible independence of the class forces of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie. In the imperialist centre, we break the masses from the war-drives of their rulers – in the semi-colonies, from the treachery and weakness of theirs. Everything else is tactics.

It is true, moreover, that anti-war work necessarily reaches beyond direct opposition to particular wars. Even the broad-as-a-broad-bean StWC feels the need to march about Trident, about Palestine solidarity – in short about imperialism as a whole, even if it does not always say so. A strategy for an anti-war movement must be a strategy for explicit anti-imperialism.

It would be perfectly legitimate, then, for Stop the War to organise or support protests against Iranian state repression, to invite communist and progressive workers, students and others to speak from its platforms – to weld together the concrete manifestations of the movement against imperialism and war in the metropolis and the periphery. Such work is anti-imperialist – it provides real support to the only forces which are objectively anti-imperialist in Iran. Yes, we can link – and march under – two slogans. The meaning of “no to imperialist war, no to the theocracy” is “no to imperialist war, therefore no to the theocracy”.

[1] I do not mean to accuse Workers Power comrades of unqualified support for the Iraqi (or general semi-colonial) state – the document makes it clear that you consider the Iranian theocracy reactionary, for example. But it is nevertheless standard practice in the English language that, when one talks of a country’s victory or defeat in a war, we are talking of the country’s state – “victory to Iraq” in 2003 meant “victory to Saddam”, not the Iraqi working
class (except in the indirect sense that the victory of Saddam would have spared them an unprecedented nightmare).

[2] In this section I substantially paraphrase Mike Macnair’s work on the subject, developed in a series of articles in the Weekly Worker (July 29, August 5, August 12) and in a number of speeches, openings and papers delivered to meetings and conferences (for example, the Critique Conference of 2007 – sound file here).

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