Fighting again

Andy draws our attention to this statement by Alex Callinicos (‘for the SWP Central Committee’):

as we put it in our ‘International Perspectives 2005’, ‘if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive is critical to the success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions.

There are three propositions here. Firstly, US imperialism essentially rules the world and will quash any development in the direction of socialism or self-rule, unless it can be challenged by military force. For the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America to develop, they needed political space – and a decisive contribution to creating the space was made by the resistance to the invasion of Iraq, specifically by its success in tying down the Pentagon’s military machine. It follows (secondly) that setbacks to US imperialism – and, specifically, military setbacks – are more important and more worthy of support than any developments in the direction of socialism, since these are only possible on the condition that US imperialism is defeated (or at least tied down). Hence the resistance in Iraq matters more than the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America; they may be more advanced politically, but Iraq is the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism. It follows that building the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’ is more important than solidarity work with Venezuela (or Bolivia, or anywhere else not currently in a state of war with the US). Thirdly, for us in the advanced capitalist world the anti-imperialist struggle of the Iraqi resistance is especially relevant, since the countries of the advanced capitalist world are, not to put too fine a point on it, doing the damage. This is therefore a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than mere ‘cheerleading’.

My problem with this analysis starts at the end. To start with, I’m not at all clear what the ‘task’ being proposed actually is. I don’t believe the SWP is advocating the formation of an International Brigade to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi resistance, or calling for the disruption of the British war effort; I don’t even believe they go so far as to cheerlead for the Iraqi resistance, at least not in material intended for public consumption. If revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world have any role in the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’, it seems to consist of a demonstrative withdrawal of support from that war – and we hardly need a revolutionary cadre to do that.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that expressing opposition to the war in Iraq is in fact a contribution to the struggle against US imperialism. Even if this were the case, I’d struggle to see how this would take priority over more positive developments towards socialism. This point relates to Callinicos’s other assertion, that mobilising against the war is a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies. For that to be the case, this would surely have to be a campaign that resonated with broader social issues and found points of leverage within existing divisions in society. (If you remember the miners’ strike, think how that single issue ramified into areas from gender roles to welfare spending to nuclear power – all of them deeply contentious and all offering a terrain for further mobilisation.) By contrast, almost nobody outside Westminster actually supports the war; this is not in any obvious way a divisive issue, which severely limits its potential for broader mobilisation. (The SWP’s sotto voce endorsement of the Iraqi resistance has the opposite problem, as hardly anyone outside the party agrees with it.)

The point, for the depleted forces of the Left in the advanced capitalist world, has to be what we can actually achieve. The implicit assumption underlying Callinicos’s analysis seems to be that, in ourselves and for ourselves, we can achieve nothing. Globally, the precondition for any advance towards socialism is the military defeat of our own nation and its allies; in the absence of that, every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism will be doomed. This is politics reimagined as a game of Risk: a nation can only be available for Socialism if it’s not occupied by Imperialism, or if Imperialism has had to send its armies elsewhere. The message for socialists in nations of the Imperialist heartland (such as this one) is simple: don’t you know there’s a war on? Any other demands can and should be suspended for the duration.

I find this a bleak and, effectively, anti-political world view; I find it hard to imagine it being held seriously by anyone who’d recently been involved in a political campaign in this country. Because there is still class conflict in advanced capitalist nations; we may be aristocrats of labour on a world scale, but there are still divisions for socialists to open up, contradictions to exacerbate – and gains to be made. I don’t pretend to know the best or most fruitful approach to doing so, but I am pretty sure it won’t begin with a demand that’s embarrassingly uncontroversial (“Troops out of Iraq”) – or one that’s just plain embarrassing (“Victory to the Iraqi resistance!”).

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29 Comments

  1. Posted 1 June 2007 at 08:10 | Permalink | Reply

    Is “troops out of Iaq” actually uncontroversial? I don’t think it is.

    I’m wary of any socialist analysis of any other socialist analysis that involves terms like “implicit assumption”. I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say (well, not in general) but I think you’re probably pushing Callinicos’ argument into a box that it doesn’t quite fit.

  2. Phil
    Posted 1 June 2007 at 10:44 | Permalink | Reply

    ejh – yes, you spotted my over-reading; ‘implicit’ is a bit of a giveaway. But I do think that’s the worldview that drops out of Callinicos’s analysis – at least, it’s a worldview that’s consistent with it, and one that’s believable enough in itself to be worth polemicising against.

    As for whether ‘troops out of Iraq’ is controversial, I go back to the miners’ strike examples. There were sizeable constituencies for “cut benefits for scroungers”, “Britain needs nuclear power” and “a woman’s place is in the home”, all of which the strike took on in different ways. If and when Brown announces a British withdrawal, I don’t think there will be many takers for ‘troops back into Iraq’.

  3. Igor Belanov
    Posted 1 June 2007 at 13:44 | Permalink | Reply

    The whole SWP policy is based on misconceptions about Imperialism and about the US. We aren’t in the 19th century any more, imperialism isn’t a particularly helpful concept and we badly need to see the world’s political economy in a more complex fashion. The Iraq situation, like Vietnam, has shown that the US can be powerless to impose it’s will under certain circumstances, and Callinicos and others are seriously deluding themselves if they think that US power and Western greed is the only thing stopping the world from turning socialist. They have gone down the 60’s radical route of writing off the West as decadent and seeing any rebelliousness in the wider world as the socialist future. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think that if socialism is to come, then it will come from Europe.

  4. Posted 2 June 2007 at 15:44 | Permalink | Reply

    imperialism isn’t a particularly helpful concept

    Is it not? Why not?

    Callinicos and others are seriously deluding themselves if they think that US power and Western greed is the only thing stopping the world from turning socialist

    Is there any reason to think they think this?

  5. Posted 3 June 2007 at 15:46 | Permalink | Reply

    I may be totally missing the point here, but if the Callinicos/SWP position is that socialism can only succeed when American imperialism is occupied elsewhere, then surely rather than opposing the War on Terror, insofar as that just means the occupation of Iraq, they should support it: the longer it goes on, the longer American imperialism will be kept away from Latin America, and the more socialism can be built. Opposing it surely risks the end of the occupation and the re-focusing of American power. Perhaps there’s something I’m not getting.

  6. Phil
    Posted 3 June 2007 at 22:00 | Permalink | Reply

    Rob – yes. The specific phrase in Callinicos’s analysis that nagged away at me until I wrote this was tying down the Pentagon’s military machine. On the face of it, this suggests a curiously instrumental view of Iraq, implying that it would be better for workers of all nations if the area was maintained indefinitely as an ungovernable war-zone – or, at least, that for the resistance to turn Iraq into an ungovernable war-zone would in itself be a positive achievement. I don’t think Callinicos entirely believes this – I’m sure he’d welcome an American withdrawal without another shot being fired, even if it did free up the imperialist war machine to go elsewhere. I suspect that he was starting from the assumption that what’s bad for American imperialism must necessarily be good for the workers (in some way, by some mechanism) – and this rather strange argument is one way to fill in the blanks.

  7. Posted 4 June 2007 at 07:50 | Permalink | Reply

    One of the effects of a defeat of US imperialism (if Igor will permit!) would surely be that it would be less willing to intervene, certainly on such a scale, for a fair period of time in the future. So it wouldn’t really “free up” the US forces,would it?

    As for “tying down” – is it not reasonable, on much the same grounds, to suggest that the US can’t really manage more than one difficult invasion and occupation at the time and that therefore, being inbolved at such length (and depth) in Iraq
    has made other conceivable interventions (Iran most obviously, but perhaps Venezuela or even Lebanon or Syria) impossible for the while?

    As I suggested above, I do often think debates of this nature tend to involves making specific phrases and formulations used by other leftists perform rather more work than they were even intended to do….

  8. Posted 4 June 2007 at 09:07 | Permalink | Reply

    I suppose what I thought was odd was that you would oppose something that you thought was instrumentally useful. Maybe a more sophisticated position makes sense though; it’s instrumentally useful, but only if you oppose it, because it only prevents the use of US power elsewhere if there’s an organised opposition to it. It just seemed a bit perverse on the face of it.

  9. Phil
    Posted 4 June 2007 at 20:04 | Permalink | Reply

    is it not reasonable … to suggest that the US can’t really manage more than one difficult invasion and occupation at the time and that therefore, being inbolved at such length (and depth) in Iraq has made other conceivable interventions (Iran most obviously, but perhaps Venezuela or even Lebanon or Syria) impossible for the while?

    I’ve got no argument with that. My problem with Callinicos’s analysis (in this respect) is that it presents the tying-down as a good thing in itself, rather than as a (potentially welcome) side-effect of a situation with its own pros and cons. In other words, its negative impact on the Pentagon war machine becomes the most salient fact about the Iraqi resistance – whether they’ve got an anti-capitalist dynamic, or any kind of dynamic of which the SWP might approve, is neither here nor there. I think this is mistaken tactically as well as analytically; Callinicos argues that anti-war protest relates directly to the politics of our own societies, but I don’t see that it does, or not in any obviously productive way.

    But I suspect we’re reaching the point where all we’re proving is that it’s possible to read the same paragraph both charitably and uncharitably.

  10. Posted 4 June 2007 at 21:49 | Permalink | Reply

    Indeed, although note that here:

    its negative impact on the Pentagon war machine becomes the most salient fact about the Iraqi resistance – whether they’ve got an anti-capitalist dynamic, or any kind of dynamic of which the SWP might approve, is neither here nor there

    there seems (perhaps reading uncharitably) to be a confusion between one thing being the most important and it being the only important thing.

  11. Posted 5 June 2007 at 01:31 | Permalink | Reply

    Generally I think EJh has a point that there is a certain amount of overreading going on.

    But, it is often hard to interpret Callinicos without over-reading, because he does tend to rely on the broad narrative sweep to get him over the difficult bits. This is a caracteristic of his political writing.

    In terms of the SWP’s position in the British left, and their predominance in the leadership of the anti-war movement, then their theroetical articulation of how they see the significance of the war is important.

    The problem with this presepective lies in this sentance: “Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. “, with the word “therefore.” This is a classic non-sequiter. And this is not an over-reading but central to their current politics – as you can see by reading Lenin’s Tomb, for example.

    We could re-write the arguemtn to its polar opposite and it would still make as much sense.

    “if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement in solidarity with Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions. The success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia, is critical to Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive.”

  12. Posted 5 June 2007 at 01:32 | Permalink | Reply

    Ok that needs editing slightly.

    Second attempt:

    “if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement in solidarity with Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for the Iraqi resistance. The success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia, is critical to Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive.”

  13. Posted 5 June 2007 at 07:45 | Permalink | Reply

    he does tend to rely on the broad narrative sweep

    Well, Marxists often do, Andy.

  14. Posted 5 June 2007 at 09:39 | Permalink | Reply

    Yes ejh, but there is a difference between Karl Marx and JK Rowling.

    Broad narrative sweep in the sense of seeing the big picture is a good thing, but only if that narrative can also stand up to analysis.

  15. Posted 5 June 2007 at 09:51 | Permalink | Reply

    there is a difference between Karl Marx and JK Rowling

    As I intend to demonstrate when I get back to my planned series of pre-21st July Potter reviews (four re-read, one reviewed and it’s already June…)

  16. Posted 5 June 2007 at 21:13 | Permalink | Reply

    The difference is that I’ve only read Karl Marx, as you’d expect from someone running a children’s bookshop.

    Andy – pretty much no narrative can stand up to an analysis that demands of it an exactitude which by nature it does not possess.

  17. Posted 5 June 2007 at 23:53 | Permalink | Reply

    ejh, I’ve got a great deal of respect for you as a blogger, but your comments on this post are driving me up the wall. You seem to be reaching for some way of delegitimating this entire discussion, flagging it as inappropriate or inherently unfounded, rather than actually engaging with it. I’m willing to justify particular interpretations, but I’m not going to justify the act of interpreting (yea, even the act of interpreting Callinicos). Back to basics: what, if anything, do you actually disagree with here?

  18. Posted 6 June 2007 at 09:53 | Permalink | Reply

    Oh come on, Phil. I’ve repeatedly said that I think people are engaging in an activity which involves putting an interpretation on phrases which those phrases do not actually bear. In that sense how is it possible to engage with it except to say so?

  19. Posted 6 June 2007 at 10:12 | Permalink | Reply

    But that’s just the point – to say that we’re putting an interpretation on phrases which those phrases do not actually bear suggests that you’ve got specific phrases in mind, and that there is an alternative, parsimonious interpretation which those phrases would bear. It suggests that you’re engaging with specifics, in other words, rather than doing a kind of hermeneutic Bartleby (“I prefer not to interpret it like that”).

  20. Posted 6 June 2007 at 10:40 | Permalink | Reply

    Not so much parsimonious as less nailed down. Words and phrases are not always or even usually exact and the logic which is considered to emerge from them is even less so.

    Now you might observe that Callinicos is a philosopher whose work has dealt much with the meaning of words and therefore he can be expected to pay great attention to the specific meaning of the specifc phrases he chooses to employ. Fair enough, up to a point. But he might retort, might he not, that meanings are always imposed to some degree by the reader, and that we should perhaps be careful not to read, as you put it, uncharitably?

    PS Any chance of a preview box?

  21. Posted 6 June 2007 at 11:07 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m much more likely to observe that Callinicos is a political theorist with a sizeable audience, whose words are offered as a guide for action – in which case it’s important to think about what kinds of action might reasonably follow from those words.

    I agree that meaning is always imposed to some degree by the reader; I think this is precisely why it’s important to read uncharitably. People do say things that don’t make sense, contradict themselves and use logical language for rhetorical effect. Sometimes what’s presented as a consistent and logical argument turns out to be a series of unrelated assertions. Sometimes it’s constructive to point this out.

    Previews would be good. I’ll look into the possibilities.

  22. Posted 8 June 2007 at 18:25 | Permalink | Reply

    It seems to me you are being willfully obtuse here ejh.

    Callinicos is saying that campiagning over the iraq war is better value for money for socialists than venezuela soidarity work, and this is becasue it relates to political tasks more in tune with our own society, and the is a strong implication that a defeat for the US/UK in Iraq will be more signifincant on a global scale than any results likely to come out of Venezuela.

    Now this is a plausible enough political position, but as I have said before, broad narrative sweep is not enough to convince me. How is the anti-war work more in tune with political life in Britain than venezuela solidarity work? How will the possible defeat of the US in Iraq help the left? Why doesn’t he think the venezuela solidarity work fits in with politics of our own societies?

    It is failure ot tie down Callinicos and Rees and other SWP theoreticians on what it actually means that allows them to write clever sounding stuff, while the SWP on the ground behave in a way that doesn’t flow from any theory.

  23. Posted 8 June 2007 at 22:39 | Permalink | Reply

    It seems to me you are being willfully obtuse here ejh.

    No, I’m not, Andy, and if that’s the best you can do then don’t bother. Or try not being wilfully obtuse yourself: how will the possible defeat of the US in Iraq help the left?

    How indeed?

  24. Posted 8 June 2007 at 22:49 | Permalink | Reply

    I think a bit more is needed at this point than saying you’re not being wilfully obtuse. There’s certainly nothing obtuse about Andy’s comment, as far as I can see – it seems to me that “How will the possible defeat of the US in Iraq help the left?” is a very good question. Not “will we as leftists be pleased if this happens?”, but “how will it actually help the Left, and what makes it a better issue than others for the Left to mobilise around?”

  25. Posted 8 June 2007 at 23:01 | Permalink | Reply

    Sometimes what’s presented as a consistent and logical argument turns out to be a series of unrelated assertions. Sometimes it’s constructive to point this out

    Sometimes, but how often is intrasocialist polemic actually constructive? Even leaving aside the question “how often does it involve supporting one another at all rather than finding that everybody else is damagingly wrong?”, we can ask – how often do we not find that it involves exaggeration, looking for what is implied rather than what is actually said, taking things to what are claimed to be logical conclusions (as per Rob’s silly point above) but are actually more like a reductio ad absurdam? How often do we allow at all for nuance, let alone for the fact that in fact not every train of thought spoken or written down is a finely-honed and perfectly-thought-out spotless system of thought?

    Or – immediately to the point as regards this particular discussion – really, why does it matter if somebody else’s priorities are actually somewhat differently ordered to our own? Who cares? Does it render their viewpoint absurd, damaging or redundant? If not, is it actually of any substantial importance? So Callinicos might feel that Iraq is more important than Venezuela and somebody else might feel the opposite. So what? Does that mean that either side will refuse to involve themselves in what the other does? Even if it did, how important would that be? If we have different priorities, doesn’t that actually mean we are more likely to get more things done, much as in the oft-told tale or Mr Jack Sprat and his good lady wife?

    Personally, I gave up active socialist politics after the Iraq War started, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me. I probably don’t know or understand them all even now and perhaps I never will. But what, I think, demoralises me more than anything else is the standard of socialist argument, not so much intellectually but in its apparent desire even when it is not actually vituperative, to make mountains out of molehills. That’s not a statement that seeks to delegitimise anything – except perhaps vituperation – it’s just something that says, well, I’m tired, and as much as anything else I’m tired of the endless struggle to show, by ungenerous interpretation, that everybody else is throughly wrong. I exaggerate, of course: but I do not caricature.

    Could we please have some space? Some space for not pinning things down so harshly?

  26. Posted 8 June 2007 at 23:06 | Permalink | Reply

    I think a bit more is needed at this point than saying you’re not being wilfully obtuse.

    Well, not really: if Andy can’t deal with an argument other by than claiming it’s being wilfully obtuse then what’s the point in my bothering?

    it seems to me that “How will the possible defeat of the US in Iraq help the left?” is a very good question.

    I’m fairly sure that Andy can think of some reasons why this proposition might hold true. A generous approach might be to think of some and examine them, rather than to retort rhetorically.

    But it is past midnight here, I have been on my feet for hours in the heat and I am genuinely tired.

  27. Posted 9 June 2007 at 00:17 | Permalink | Reply

    ejh

    I become increasingly wary of attempts to turn debates about substantive issues into a debate about how we are debating, or that debate is inward looking or a distraction from the real tasks. But how can we agree what the real tasks are if we don’t discuss it?

    The SWP are an important component of the left, especially in England, but across all Britain, and they exercise considerable authority in the anti-war movement, and the anti-fascist movement, as well as in some other areas. What is more, they are ideologically influential even among many who have reservations about them as an organisation.

    Alex Callinicos is one of the two or three most influential ideologists of the SWP, and in this debate with the New Zealand socialists he has given a very clear overview of what he sees as the political priorities. Changes in the SWP’s priorities can have strong effects on the rest of us, for example in the SSP or English SA. So when ejh says: does it matter if somebody else’s priorities are actually somewhat differently ordered to our own? Who cares? Well I think the comrades in the SSP cared when the SWP backed Sheridan. I think the mass exodus of independent non-SWP activists out of Respect cared that the SWP had different priorities from them, but were denied democratic structures to determine the outcome. It clearly matters whether the UAF’s stategy or Searchlight’s is more lilely to be successful in beating the BNP, as they are mutually incompatible and both sides of that debate think that the other lot undermine their own work.

    If we are to understand the SWP’s current day to day political activity, then it is necessary to go beyond the broad sweeping statements and try to inderstand how they see the world, and in so doing we may find areas of agreement, and where there is disagreement then marshalling our arguments may improve our understanding.

    Yes – I can play speculation game. I can imagine certain hypothetical outcomes in Iraq which might strengthen the left internationally and in Britain. Equally, it is arguable that 2 million on the streets who were then ignored has led to increased political alienation and cynacism for most, and has also bolstered the Lib Dems. We could observe that as the left has finite resources then prioritising Iraq (as I actually do in my own political work by the way) means that we don’t prioritise some other campaigns.

    The question posed is what are the dominant features in the British political landscape? i would answer that as being the disconnect between new Labour and its electoral base over much more traditional social-democratic issues than the war, the long term structural antagonism between the Labour government and the unions over PFI, privatisation and liberalisation; and finally the national question of the break up of UKania.

    Given that the US and UK will probably not even lose the war in any clear cut way with a satisfyingly understandable outcome, then the SWP’s prioritisation of the war to the degree they do (and the pushing of Respect as the anti-war party) may prove to be an opportunity lost.

    Isn’t is simply the responsible thing for us to do to try to understand their reasoning, and if we think them inclined to err then to seek to persuade them to change tack?

  28. Posted 9 June 2007 at 00:23 | Permalink | Reply

    BTW – back to the very first thing you wrote ejh: Is “troops out of Iaq” actually uncontroversial? I don’t think it is.

    It is completely uncontroversial, because even the army wants to get out. They cannot however find a political excuse for leaving.

  29. Posted 9 June 2007 at 20:40 | Permalink | Reply

    If it is silly to point out the perversity of a piece of political commentary, then I am happy to be silly: that someone endorses one perverse conclusion is reasonable standing evidence that other parts of their thinking will tend to be similarly confused. Also, even if it turns out not to be the case that other parts of their view are similarly confused, the perversity of that part of the view presumably means that it should be reconsidered, or at least reinterpreted.

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