The U.S. Deserves to Lose in Iraq but Should We “Support the Iraqi Resistance”?
An USA Anarchist Opinion on the Iraqi War
A New York anarchist takes a long look at the US occupation of Iraq, the resistance to that occupation and where anarchists should focus their energies. Includes a look at what the rest of the left is saying and what the historical anarchist position towards wars of national liberation have been.
The U.S. state deserves to lose in Iraq. The bigger the lose the better for Iraq and the rest of the world. Anarchists and other militants should focus our energies on opposing the U.S. This does not imply any political support for the leadership of the Iraqi resistance. It implies complete opposition to U.S. politicians who support capitalism and the war.
We do not give “political support” (or however we want to phrase it) to the leadership of the Iraqi resistance. Anarchists are openly in revolutionary opposition to that leadership and its program. We are closest to those Iraqis who are building unions, organizations of the unemployed, women’s organizations, and secular democratic student associations, what has been called the “civil resistance.” But we do not compromise on our program for international freedom and justice.
The U.S. Deserves to Lose in Iraq- But Should We “Support the Iraqi Resistance”?
Part I. A USA Anarchist Opinion on the Iraqi War
The U. S. A. deserves to be militarily defeated in Iraq. It should be
forced to withdraw from that country. The U.S. is waging a war of
aggression, invading and occupying a country that did it no harm and
had been no threat, overthrowing its government, killing tens of
thousands of its people, including civilians, torturing others,
remaining in the country even after overthrowing its government,
violating the wishes of most of its people, trying to sell off its
oil, and planning to maintain U.S. military bases there for a long
time.. All this was justified by a campaign of lies about Weapons of
Mass Destruction and about ties to terrorism. If international law
means anything at all, this is an illegal war. This vile war of
aggression should be lost! (I am concentrating on the war in Iraq
here, although these arguments would mostly apply also to U.S.
intervention in Afghanistan. and its support for the Israeli state
against the Palestinians.)
The more thoroughly this vicious war is defeated, the less likely
the U.S. government will be to attack other countries. This war has
been announced as only the beginning of a series of wars by which the
U.S. state threatens nations around the world, such as Iran, Syria,
and North Korea. The U.S. state has declared a never-ending War on
Terror. Ever since the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, the government has
felt handicapped by the so-called Vietnam Syndrome, that is, the
reluctance of the U.S. population to support military interventions.
The terrorist crime of September 11 eroded this reluctance and was
used as an excuse to engage in aggressions which inner circles had
long wanted to carry out anyway. A big defeat in Iraq will decrease
the willingness of U.S. workers to support aggression by the
government. This would protect people everywhere in the world.
This does not imply any hostility to the ranks of the U.S.
military forces, mainly soldiers or Marines. After all, they did not
decide to invade Iraq. It was not their choice. Probably most joined
the military for economic reasons (the so-called poverty draft). Many
do not support the war. Of those in the Reserves or National Guard,
almost none expected to be fighting in a foreign war. It is in their
interests for U.S. forces to be withdrawn as soon as possible.
Furthermore, if the U.S. is so defeated that it is unlikely to soon
wage war on other countries, this would be in the interests of these
and future U.S. military ranks who would otherwise be put in harm's
way in such wars.
Nor does this imply any political support for the leadership of
the Iraqi resistance. Probably most of the fighters in the resistance
(also called insurgents) are motivated by a just desire to get rid of
foreign occupiers. The movement is heterogeneous. But their
leadership seems to be mostly Islamicist authoritarians, who want to
establish a theocratic dictatorship and are explicitly
pro-capitalist. They are in alliance with Ba'athists, supporters of
pseudosocialist nationalist dictatorship. Both groupings are
antiunion and antiworking class; the Islamicists are also viciously
against rights for women. Both tendencies have much in common with
fascism. Their methods include legitimate attacks on foreign troops
and the forces of the puppet regime, but also terrorist attacks on
Iraqi civilians. There would be no great advantage for the Iraqi
people if such forces get to establish their state.
Our sympathies should be with those Iraqis who work to build
labor unions, organizations of the unemployed, and women's
organizations--working against both the U.S. occupation and the main
leadership of the resistance.
Why We Should Focus on the U.S.
There are two reasons I concentrate on the U.S. government, rather
than on the nature of the Iraqi resistance or the Sadam regime before
that. The first is that I am a U.S. citizen. The U.S. state claims to
speak in my name and the name of my fellow citizens. This gives us a
responsibility to oppose it. Practically, we have a greater chance to
influence the U.S. state than other states--not by presenting nice,
rational, arguments to the U.S. rulers but by building a mass
movement against its warmaking. It is easier to condemn the
governments of countries on the other side of the world, especially
those that are the enemies of the U.S. state (such as Sadam was, or
the potential state of the resistance). It is more difficult to fight
against the ruling regime of our own society. But this is what most
needs to be done.
Secondly, the U.S. state is the most powerful in the world and
the servant of the richest ruling class on earth. It drains wealth
from all nations. With its mighty military, it is the bully of the
planet. It backs dictatorships and authoritarian pseudodemocracies
throughout the world. Contrary to the view that the world is now
smooth and that imperialism is over, there remains a distinction
between the rich, imperialist states and the poor, oppressed nations,
And the United States is the main imperialist.
These two points also apply, properly modified, to militants in
other imperialist countries, essentially in Canada, Western Europe,
and Japan. Their main task is also to oppose their own immediate
states. They need to fight against the U.S., the center of world
imperialism, but their rulers are imperialists in their own right.
The imperialist states are junior partners of the U.S., both
economically (sharing in the loot from the oppressed nations) and
militarily. For example, while the Canadian state proclaims its
idealism in not sending troops to Iraq, it does send troops to
Afghanistan, which frees the U.S. state to send more forces to Iraq.
At the same time, these other imperialists have their own interests,
which they sometimes assert against the U.S. (especially since the
collapse of the Soviet Union).
From time to time the U.S. may seem to do something good for the
local people; it may stop genocide or ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or
in Kurdish Iraq; it may overthrow a local dictator such as Saddam or
restore Aristide to power in Haiti. I would not condemn the Kosovars
or Kurds, for example, from taking advantage of such protection.
However, the U.S. state does this for its own reasons, not really for
the good of the people. Any people it seems to benefit should be
warned about this. The U.S. state has continued to oppose national
self-determination for the Kosovars and the Kurds (and has repeatedly
betrayed the Kurds in the past). It overthrew the murderous and
torturing regime of Saddam to create its own murderous and torturing
regime. It restored Aristide...and then overthrew him. In any case,
none of these apparently good acts of the U.S. should not be used to
justify the support of the U.S. empire by U.S. people.
There are certain implications of focusing our fight against the
U.S. empire (and its imperialist allies). Our main task is to demand
that the U.S. military and its fake coalition immediately and
unconditionally leave Iraq (and leave Afghanistan and withdraw all
support from Israel). We should demand that the U.S. state cease all
support for the supposed laws it has saddled Iraq with, which were to
keep the Iraqi economy under U.S. control. It should abandon all
bases in Iraq and the Middle East. It should offer financial
reparations for the damage it has done to Iraq, to be given to
whatever governing entity the Iraqis organize. None of this should be
dependent on what the Iraqis do or do not do. How the Iraqis organize
themselves is none of the business of the U.S. government.
Many people say that U.S. troops should be replaced by other
troops, such as UN soldiers or NATO troops. But the UN and NATO are
dominated by the U.S. Even aside from this, they are dominated by
other imperialist states who would be no improvement over the U.S. In
any case, the occupation of Iraq by any foreign forces at all would
deny the Iraqi people their right to self-determination. This would
be true even of the proposal that Iraq be occupied by troops from
other Muslim countries. The Iraqi people have the right to settle
their own differences and take care of themselves.
Some liberals propose a graduated pullout by the U.S., perhaps
setting a date by which it promises to complete the withdrawal. This
proposal also denies the Iraqis their self-determination. It implies
that the U.S. state has the right to remain in Iraq until it decides
to end its occupation, on its own terms. This approach sets up a
situation where the U.S. rulers could announce that they had planned
to withdraw--as the whole world knows--but circumstances have changed
and they have to stay in a while longer. Instead, the movement must
insist on a program of immediate and unconditional withdrawal!
The Iraqis are under the guns of the U.S. and its friends. They
may chose to negotiate with the U.S. Many have chosen to participate
in the governing structures set up by the U.S. military, including
being part of the U.S.-managed elections. At least the ranks of these
participants apparently thought that this was the best way to get rid
of U.S. rule. As internationalists, U.S. militants may agree or
disagree with such tactics. But in no way does this justify our
letting up our complete opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq.
Whatever some Iraqis feel that they are forced to do, the movement
inside the U.S. must insist that the U.S. get out of Iraq.
Political Implications of Focusing First on Opposing the U.S.
Most of the U.S. antiwar movement has accepted the need for
immediate U.S. withdrawal, using slogans such as Bring the Troops
Home Now! (There are those who originally opposed the war but who now
are for continuing it, supposedly to prevent an Iraqi civil war.
These do not take part in the antiwar movement.) However, there are
certain implications which most of the movement does not yet draw.
If we are completely against U.S. imperialism then we should
completely reject any politicians who support that empire. The war on
the Iraqis is not the result of a mistake by a few politicians. The
war is the logical outcome of the attempts of the U.S. state to
continue to dominate the world in the interests of U.S. big business.
No doubt mistakes have been made, in terms of U.S. interests; nor was
it inevitable that the U.S. would have gone to war at this time, in
this place. But war somewhere, at some time, was inevitable. The
politicians who have served U.S. imperial interests have not been all
of one party, the Republicans. On the contrary, the years of embargo
and bombing which followed the first Gulf war and preceded this one
were administered by the Democrats under President Clinton. When this
President Bush launched his war, it was endorsed by almost all the
Democratic politicians. In the 2004 presidential election, the
Democrats outdid the Republicans by calling for more troops for Iraq.
The election was between two pro-war candidates.
More generally, the Democrats, who are seen by many antiwar
activists as the party of peace, are as committed to empire and war
as the Republicans. The Democrats led the U.S. into World War I and
II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They are as dedicated to a
large military force, nuclear, world-destroying, missiles, overseas
military bases, global power politics, and the profitability of U.S.
international businesses. They do not deny this--rather they insist
on it. (On the Middle East, historically the Democrats have been more
hawkish in support of Israel than the Republicans.)
Yet, during the 2004 presidential election, the leaders of the
U.S. peace movement virtually put the movement in mothballs. This was
true not only of the out-and-out liberals but also of many radicals,
people calling themselves socialists or communists. They did not
challenge the Democrats over their support for the war. They did not
call demonstrations against the war. They went all-out to elect the
second of the two pro-war candidates. Even the Green Party adopted a
program of implicitly supporting the imperialist Democratic candidate
(by not challenging him in swing states where he had a chance). Of
course, many ordinary people who disliked the war nevertheless
supported the Democrats out of hatred of the vile George W. Bush.
That is one thing. That this was done by people calling themselves
radicals, even revolutionaries, was shameful.
There was also a minority of antiwar activists who rejected the
Democrats but instead campaigned for Ralph Nader. Nader makes no
secret of his support for U.S. capitalism (his program is for it to
be better regulated by the national state). He did not advocate the
complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq, instead
supporting UN troops. That he was vigorously supported by people
calling themselves revolutionary socialists and internationalists was
[In Part II I discuss why we should not use the
slogan, "support the Iraqi resistance." I also discuss the
strengths and weaknesses of the typical anarchist position, as I see
Part II: Should We “Support the Iraqi Resistance”?
In Part I of this essay, I argued that the U.S. war on Iraq, from the side of the U.S. and its allies (mainly the U.K.), is unjustifiable, an act of aggression, and imperialist . From the side of people in the imperialist countries such as the U.S., our position should be defeatist: we should give no support to the war; we want the U.S. government to lose. The job of citizens of the U.S. state is to focus on opposing the imperialist actions of our government, rather than on the problems of the Iraqi state or resistance. The only decent thing for U.S. workers to do is to demand immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq (and Afghanistan). Our key slogan should be, “Bring the Troops Home Now!” Building a mass movement which raises this slogan, among others, is the most important thing we can do for the Iraqis.
I further argued that we should at least oppose any politicians who take any stance short of complete and immediate withdrawal from Iraq, including those (in the U.S.) in the Democratic and Green parties. Also I declared that this did not mean giving political support to the leaders of the Iraqi armed resistance.
support “the resistance”?
This last point raises an important argument within the antiwar movement. There is a wing of the movement which raises the slogan, “support the resistance,” meaning particularly the armed Iraqi resistance, more than the mostly unarmed “civil resistance” of unions and women’s organizations. They call for “solidarity with the resistance.” This position is raised by people on the Left of the movement. This is similar to those in the movement against the Vietnam war in the sixties, who called for “Victory to the National Liberation Front!” (the so-called Vietcong) and waved NLF flags in antiwar demonstrations. In this part of my essay I will discuss the presentation of one version of this position.
Of course, such slogans are not raised by the more moderate right wing of the movement, composed of liberals, social democrats, Stalinists from the tradition of the pro-USSR Communist Party, and moderate pacifists. This liberal sector aims to win over the Democratic Party and the union officialdom and therefore would not say anything that might upset these pro-imperialist forces. For similar reasons, this liberal sector does not want to raise the connection between the Iraqi war and U.S. support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. It even waffles on the demand for immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
But the demand that we support the resistance is being raised by much of the movement’s ieft wing, the more radical section. This includes the Workers’ World Party and its split-offs in the ANSWER Coalition, a major part of the movement. For example, one part of this antiwar wing, the Troops Out Now Coalition, issued a letter on May 16th, endorsing ANSWER’s call for a demonstration, adding that, "the Iraqi people have a right to resist occupation by whatever means they choose.”
Also, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which is a relatively significant left group, mainly on U.S. college campuses, raises a similar view. A recent issue of their journal, the International Socialist Review (# 40, Mar-Apr ‘05) has a series of four articles arguing for this position. One essay, titled “Iraqis have the Right to Resist,” is by Paul D’Amato, an associate editor. He argues, “If the war is one of imperialist conquest, and the resistance opposes that conquest, then by definition the Iraqi resistance is a legitimate war of national liberation.” To deny support for the resistance is, he writes, to reject national independence for Iraq. He asserts that he opposes the approach of Phyllis Bennis (similar to mine), who wrote that, “We recognize the right of the Iraqi people to resist as a point of principle, even if we do not endorse specific resistance organizations...[Therefore] we should not call for ‘supporting the resistance’....” Merely recognizing the right of the Iraqis to resist is not enough for him. D’Amato says he is aware of “weaknesses and limitations of the Iraqi resistance” including “self-defeating and even reprehensible tactics used by some resistance groups....” But, he writes, “...One need not offer political support to the Iraqi resistance in order to support its main goal, driving the U.S. out of Iraq.” He writes, in italics, “Americans have no right to make decisions about what kind of society the Iraqis will have--that decision should be up to the Iraqis themselves.”
There are some good arguments being raised here, which I will discuss further in Part III. (For example, I agree that, “the Iraqi resistance is a legitimate war of national liberation.” But I also agree with Bennis that, “We do not [have to] endorse specific resistance organizations.”) Interestingly, however, I never see these arguments applied to Afghanistan. I suppose that “Support the Taliban!” is too gruesome a slogan, considering the Taliban’s history. Yet the Taliban is genuinely resisting the U.S. occupiers and their puppet government. Isn’t it also fighting “a legitimate war of national liberation?” No doubt most of the Taliban ranks are motivated by a desire to throw out the occupiers of their country--as well as to oppress women with the most misogynist laws in the world. True, at one time the Taliban forces were allied with the U.S. against the Russian invasion, but this was also true of some of the Muslim authoritarians in Iraq--and the Ba’athists under Saddam Husein were allies of the U.S. against Iran. So why doesn’t the ISO and others call for “support the Taliban?”
In any case, there is some unclarity in D’Amato’s arguments. Why isn’t it enough to help the iraqis by calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. and all other troops? Wouldn’t U.S. withdrawal provide the Iraqis with all the national self-determination they need? Why isn’t it enough to defend the right of Iraqis to resist the U.S. occupation, without endorsing “the” resistance? And anyway, what does it mean to “support” the resistance? Does anyone intend to ship them guns? Should U.S. radicals go to Iraq to join resistance groups (which would promptly kill them for being irreligious socialists)? True, “Americans” should not “make decisions” about how Iraqis should live--but may U.S. militants have opinions “about what kind of society the Iraqis will have?” If not, then why should we have opinions about whether they should resist occupation? That is, after all, also an opinion “about what kind of society” they should have.
Whether to “support” the armed resistance is not an immediate or practical issue for U.S. activists. It is, at most, a propagandist and educational issue. This does not mean that we should not discuss it, but it should be kept in perspective.
the question of class
One topic that is rarely discussed by the pro-resistance left is the class orientation of the resistance. (I find it ironic that an anarchist should have to point this out to Marxists; but these days it is often anarchists who hold to Marx’s best insights.) It is not enough to say, as D’Amato does in his article, that the armed resistance has “weaknesses and limitations” and uses “self-defeating and even reprehensible tactics.” It is not enough even to point out that its leadership is conservative, authoritarian, and theocratic. It is also important to point out that this leadership is pro-capitalist, and that, if it wins it will establish an authoritarian capitalist state. The jihadists have been open about being pro-capitalist and antiunion. The Ba’athists, at least in the past, claimed to be for “Arab socialism,” by which they meant government ownership of most of the economy. And indeed, Sadam Hussein’s regime did own the oil industry, selling the oil as a commodity on the world market, while suppressing union activity and worker rights. That is, it was state capitalist (although I have heard a Trotskyist declare that the nationalized property of Saddam’s Iraq made it a “workers’ state”!). The victory of the armed resistance, as presently led, would settle a new capitalist state on top of the Iraqi working people. It would be a defeat for the Iraqi workers. It would be a temporary setback for U.S. imperialism, but pretty soon the new rulers of Iraq would establish a new relationship with U.S. and world imperialism, giving themselves a better deal than before (which is what Saddam did). It would not lead to the overthrow of imperialism for Iraqis or other oppressed nations.
It is not enough to say, as D’Amato does, “One need not offer political support to the Iraqi resistance...” From a working class perspective, one needs to offer political opposition to the leadership of the Iraqi resistance. The jihadis, theocrats, semi-ex-Ba’athists, and Sunni supremacists are a pro-capitalist enemy of the Iraqi working class. They would settle a heavy yoke on the Iraqi workers and peasants. The same is true of the leaders of the opportunist wing of the Iraqi movement, those who use the structure of the occupation to set up their own state, so they think. While their followers (just as the ranks of the armed resistance) seek to expel the U.S. forces, these opportunist leaders also seek to set up a theocratic, capitalist, state, with a revised relationship to U.S. imperialism. While we should defend any Iraqis against the occupation, both groups of leaders, of would-be new rulers, should be politically opposed as enemies of the working class.
The only mention of working class interests in D’Amato’s article is a remark that working class struggle would help the national resistance. “No doubt, the best means to unite Iraqis into a strong, democratic national movement would be on a class basis....A unified national liberation movement in iraq that linked independence with a program of fundamental social change would tremendously strengthen the struggle....” That is, he does not claim that the national liberation struggle would be good for the workers--apparently he is not much interested in that--but that the workers’ organizing would be good for the national struggle. The workers’ class struggle is presented as secondary to the national struggle. I believe that each struggle could help the other--although working class liberation is ultimately primary. But for the national movement to be re-organized “on a [working] class basis,” would require that the workers oppose and replace the current pro-capitalist leadership of the national movement. D’Amato does not say this.
There has been some effort for people in the imperialist countries to give aid to the Iraqi workers. For example, U.S. Labor Against the War sponsored a tour of the U.S.A. by spokespeople for the two Iraqi union federations and the oil workers union, including a meeting with the head of the AFL-CIO. Expenses were paid for and funds were raised. There was some controversy about one of the federations, due to its leaders’ collaboration with the occupation authorities, but overall it was a practical example of internationalism.
In another part of the same issue of the ISO journal,an editorial quotes Hasan Juma’a Awad, president of the Basra Oil Workers Union. He wrote in the February 18th British Guardian, “The resistance to the occupation forces is a God-given right of Iraqis, and we, as a union, see ourselves as a necessary part of this resistance--although we will fight using our industrial power, our collective strength as a union, and as part of civil society which needs to grow in order to defeat both still-powerful Saddamist elites and the foreign occupation of our country.” That is, he stands opposed to the U.S. and British occupation and also to the Ba’athist remnants, presumably including those in the resistance. Union officials in Iraq have been persecuted by the occupation (which still carries out Saddam’s laws against unions in the state-owned oil industry), and also have been assaulted and murdered by resistance forces. In any case, this union leader, whatever his full politics, plans to use his union--its class power--to fight for Iraqi freedom.
To a great extent the issue of whether to support the resistance is a red herring. Advocating “support for the resistance” sounds very radical. Yet many who have this position also support Democratic Party pro-imperialist politicians. Both the ANSWER/Troops Out Now grouping and the ISO have rejected the Democrats. But in the past the leaders of the first coalition have endorsed Democrats. They invite them onto their antiwar platforms. They have recently called for lobbying Democrats. The ISO supported Nader in the last election, despite his pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist program, including gradually replacing U.S. troops in Iraq with U.N. troops. It is relatively easy to take a radical-sounding position about the Iraqi resistance (which cannot be acted on), but it is much harder to take a truly radical position of complete opposition to all pro-imperialist politicians right here at home. All the major tendencies in the U.S. peace movement, including the liberals, the ANSWER Coalition, and such groups as the ISO, fail to draw a class line in the U.S. between the workers and the pro-capitalist politicians. They fail to take a class position on Iraq (to distinguish the pro-capitalist leadership of both the resistance and the opportunists from the Iraqi working class) because they fail to take a class position in the U.S.
So far I have discussed the need to be in total opposition to the
U.S. aggression in Iraq, to hope for its defeat, to oppose all
politicians who waffle on the war, and to build a campaign around the
slogan, “Bring the Troops Home Now!” I have also criticized the
slogan of “Support the Iraqi resistance.” But this needs to be
discussed further. The idea of supporting the armed resistance is, as
I have said, not about immediate action in the U.S. or other
imperialist countries. There is no way we could implement it here,
that is, beyond building a movement for immediate and complete
military withdrawal, which does not depend on this slogan. It is a
propagandist and educational concept. As such, it is worth discussing
in terms of its educational value.
Almost all of those who use the “support” slogan are Leninists of
some sort or other, and probably most are some variant of Trotskyist
(including, but not only, the ISO, which I have been quoting).
Trotskyists, at least, distinguish between “political support” of the
resistance and “military” or “technical support.” By “support” for
the resistance, they apparently mean the second sort; as comes out in
occasional statements that they do not give “political support” to
the leadership of the resistance. I will examine this concept of
different kinds of support, in its strengths and weaknesses, from an
anarchist perspective. I will discuss three situations where it has
been used: an episode during the Russian revolution; the Spanish
revolution; the Vietnam-U.S. war.
1. The Kornilov affair
In February 1917, during World War I, the workers, peasants, and
soldiers of Russia had risen up and overthrown the old Czarist
monarchy. In its place developed a network of directly elected
councils (or “soviets”), rooted in face-to-face popular councils in
the factories, villages, and regiments. But these were not the new,
formal government, which instead was an unelected body, the
Provisional Government. This was supposed to stay in place until an
elected constituent assembly would write a constitution. Meanwhile
this Provisional Government directed the military forces and
government bureaucracy left over from the Czarist state. The
government did not end the unpopular war, call elections for a
constituent assembly, pass a law to give land to the peasants, nor do
other things it had promised. At the same time, the soviets really
had the support of the majority of the people; the Provisional
Government could not do anything without the okay of the soviets.
What made this double system (or “dual power,” as it was called) work
for a time, was that the majority in the soviets was moderate
socialists who supported the Provisional Government. These reformist
social democrats (Mensheviks) and reformist peasant-populists (Social
Revolutionaries) were opposed to taking power into the hands of the
soviets, even with them in charge. These right-wing socialists
continued to support the Provisional Government, which was composed
of pro-capitalist politicians--and then these reformist socialists
joined the government, in alliance with the capitalist parties. The
leader of the Provisional Government was Alexander Kerensky, a
Two far left tendencies opposed the Provisional Government. These
were the Bolshevik (later the Communist) Party, led by Lenin, and the
anarchists, divided into a range of groupings. Although growing, and
pressing the Bolsheviks from the left, the anarchists remained far
smaller than the Bolsheviks. Frequently in alliance, both political
groupings called for the soviets to overthrow the government and
replace it with an association of soviets. The Bolshevik slogan was
“All Power to the Soviets!” (The Bolshevik-anarchist alliance lasted
until after the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October;
eventually the Bolsheviks shot the anarchists.)
By August 1917, tensions had reached a new height. The masses of
people were getting fed up with the failures of the Provisional
Government, but still did not fully trust the far left. On the other
hand, the conservative forces of the military and the capitalists
were getting fed up with the turmoil of the popular struggles, the
strikes, the military committees which interfered with discipline,
and the whole dual power situation. Something had to give.
The right wing forces called for a military dictatorship. It would
crush the soviets, outlaw all the socialist parties - not only the
Bolsheviks but also the moderates - and restore discipline to the
military and to the factories with an expanded use of the death
penalty. To this end Kerensky entered into a conspiracy with the top
general, Lavr Kornilov. Kornilov would use the most backward of the
armed forces to invade the capital city, Petrograd, and take power.
Kerensky would provide political cover. Their only difference was
that Kerensky expected Kornilov to put Kerensky into power while
Kornilov intended to put himself on the dictator’s throne. When
Kerensky found this out he was shocked. He had been double crossed!
He dithered and waffled in informing his government, and then the
soviets, that Kornilov was advancing on the capital to stage a
What should the Bolsheviks do? (I do not know about discussions
among the anarchists at this time.) Leading Bolsheviks, such as
Trotsky, were in the prisons of the Provisional Government. Others
had been forced underground, particularly Lenin. Could they support
the government against Kornilov? The Provisional Government was
supposedly for bourgeois democracy, although it was not very
democratic in practice. Kornilov, however was proto-fascist. A group
of sailors visited Trotsky and other Bolsheviks in their prison and
asked, “Isn’t it time to arrest the government?” “No, not yet,” was
the answer. “Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward
we will settle with Kerensky.” (Trotsky, 1967, History of the Russian
Revolution, vol. II, p. 227)
In fact, Bolsheviks and anarchists, along with activists from
other socialist parties worked with rank-and-file workers to set up
large numbers of committees for defense of the revolution. These
spread throughout the Petrograd region, and in other parts of the
Russian empire. They distributed arms among the workers, mobilized
reliable military forces, and organized workers to sabotage the
advancing Kornilov forces (so that railroad troop trains got
thoroughly lost and telegraph messages never got through). Workers
and soldiers from Petrograd were sent out to meet the advancing
forces, to talk to them and persuade them to turn around. These
methods were highly successful. The military advance dissipated like
water poured on hot sand, almost nonviolently (some officers were
shot). This led to a big upswing in the influence of the far left and
a discrediting of the moderate socialists. It was only a matter of
time until the Kerensky regime was overthrown.
Throughout the Kornilov affair, the Bolsheviks did not join the
Provisional Government (and certainly the anarchists did not!). They
maintained contact with other parties for purposes of practical
coordination only. In later years, Trotsky cited this incident
several times as a guide to action. Trotsky summarized it, “Support
them technically but not politically.” (p. 305) But Lenin expressed
it somewhat differently. He wrote (“To the Central Committee of the
R.S.D.L.P.”) at the time,
“Even now we must not support Kerensky’s
government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to
fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same
thing; there is a dividing line here....We shall fight, we are
fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do
not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There
is the difference.” (Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 222)
Lenin was willing to turn the workers’ guns against Kornilov, in
practical coordination with Kerensky’s government. But he did not
want to call it “support,” not any kind of support.
2. The Spanish revolution
The Spanish revolution (or civil war, as it is more commonly
named) raged approximately from 1936 to 1939. Usually recognized as
the two main sides were the legally elected Popular Front government
versus the fascist-military forces which intended to overthrow it
(and eventually did, with military aid from Hitler). The Popular
Front was a coalition of working class, socialist, parties, and
pro-capitalist (“republican” or “Loyalist”) parties. The mass of the
workers was divided in half between those in the unions affiliated
with the Spanish Socialist Party (which was in the Popular Front) and
those in the anarchist-led unions. There was also a revolutionary
socialist party called the POUM, which was a bloc of communists who
had opposed the mainstream of the Communist Party (some from the
right opposition and some from the left--or Trotskyist--opposition).
When the military attempted its coup, the workers beat it back.
Voluntary armed forces (militias) were created by the anarchists, the
POUM, and the Socialists.
Given the outbreak of the civil war, what should revolutionary
anarchists and other socialists do? There were some in the
international movement ( Bordigists and others) who thought that
revolutionaries should not support either side. As one declared, “No
political or material support to the bourgeois Loyalist government!”
(quoted in Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 1973, Pathfinder, p. 422)
After all, the Popular Front republic was a capitalist, imperialist,
state, with a colony in Morocco, and which had jailed thousands of
workers and leftists. In practice, this was an unrealistic position,
since the workers were not ready to overthrow the republic in the
face of fascism. The leaders of the Spanish left felt (correctly)
that the republic was clearly a lesser evil to the fascists. The
republic was a bourgeois democracy, which meant that, however limited
its freedoms, the workers could still organize and prepare for an
eventual revolution. The leading anarchists and POUMists, however,
drew the conclusion from this that they should enter the Popular
Front government, in alliance with the reformist socialists and
out-and-out capitalist politicians. They subordinated their struggle
to the capitalist state. (This is a very sketchy summary, obviously.
In particular I am leaving out the treacherous role of the Communist
There was, however, a third possible position. This was for the
anarchist and POUM militias to focus their forces against the
fascists--until they were strong enough to overthrow the republican
state. Until that day, they should give military-technical support to
the republic but no political support. Revolutionary workers must not
give up their political independence from the class enemy. They
should not join the Popular Front government, nor vote for its
candidates, nor vote for its programs (not even its military budget).
The revolutionaries would be in political opposition. They should
expose the vacillations and betrayals of the Popular Front (which, in
fact, led to the defeat of the republic). They would persuade the
workers, peasants, and little people of the need for a revolution,
replacing the bureaucratic-military state with an association of
workers’ and popular councils--with internal democracy so that
different parties and organizations could compete for influence. In
fact, this could have been demonstrated in one region of Spain
(Catalonia) where the anarchist union had the support of the big
majority of the local workers.
This approach was advocated by Trotsky at the time, and by his
handful of Spanish followers. “If...we are not strong enough now to
seize power, we must militarily fight against [the fascist]
Franco...while at the same time we politically prepare for the
insurrection against [the leader of the Popular Front] Negrin.”
(Trotsky, p. 296) This political preparation is done by exposing the
weaknesses and betrayals of the liberal capitalist government.
Essentially the same approach was also raised by a revolutionary
minority of anarchists, the Friends of Durruti Group. Fed up with the
class compromises of the anarchist union leadership, they called for
completing the revolution by overthrowing the republican capitalist
state and replacing it with a national defense committee elected
through the mass unions. In their 1938 Toward a Fresh Revolution,
they denounced the political support of the Popular Front: “We are
opposed to collaboration with bourgeois groups. We do not believe
that the class approach can be abandoned. Revolutionary workers must
not shoulder official posts, nor establish themselves in the
ministries....That would be tantamount to strengthening our enemies
and tightening the noose of capitalism.” (p. 38) But they accepted
practical, material, cooperation: “For as long as the war lasts,
collaboration is permissible--on the battlefield, in the trenches, on
the parapets, and in productive labor in the rearguard.” (same) To
repeat Trotsky’s terms, “Support them technically but not
3. The Vietnam War
These first two cases I cited did not involve national liberation
struggles, although they did involve wars for other sorts of
bourgeois democratic rights (meaning the rights raised in the great
capitalist democratic revolutions of England, the U.S., France, Latin
America, etc.). But Vietnam was a war for national independence. It
had similarities and differences from what is happening in Iraq now.
Among the antiwar left there was a great deal of sympathy and even
identification with the Stalinist leadership of North Vietnam and the
National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF, so-called Viet
Cong). They were, in fact, fighting the greatest imperialist power on
earth. There were many illusions, including the belief that the NLF
was a multiparty front (rather than controlled by the Communist
Party) and that the NLF was independent of North Vietnam. This was in
the context of illusions in Castro’s Cuba and Mao’s China. Orthodox
Trotskyists claimed that North Vietnam was a workers’ state (whatever
that is) and that the NLF was making a socialist revolution. It was a
difficult period to be a revolutionary libertarian-democratic
Anti-Stalinist revolutionaries had no problem in opposing the U.S.
war and demanding immediate withdrawal from Vietnam (unlike the
Stalinists, including Maoists, who were for negotiations as a
demand). But it became clear, after a certain point, that the
Stalinists had the approval of the vast majority of Vietnamese. Over
the decades there had been other forces, such as the Trotskyists who
had much working class support in the thirties, other nationalists,
unionists, and the Buddhists. But all these had been ground down by
the two reactionary forces of the pro-Western side and the
Stalinists. Meanwhile, what might have once been regarded as a civil
war, with the pro-Western side being helped by the U.S., was now
clearly a war against foreign occupation. The U.S. had flooded the
country with 400,000 troops and taken over its side of the war.
Hal Draper founded a forerunner of today’s ISO. A former
Trotskyist, he called himself a “Third Camp socialist” and
(correctly) regarded the Stalinist bureaucracy as a new ruling class.
He was impressed by the 1968 Tet offensive of the NLF, in which
thousands of troops were infiltrated into the major cities of South
Vietnam, supply bases set up, and an offensive launched, without
anyone betraying this massive operation to the puppet government. He
concluded that the Stalinists had won national support. He discussed
this in terms of political versus so-called military support. “We had
hoped that a revolutionary third force would arise in Vietnam before
this happened; we must record that this hope has been smashed by U.S.
intervention....It follows that the question of military support [for
the NLF] is automatically raised....” (“The ABC of National
Liberation,” Draper Papers-No. 1, 1989, p. 205)
The Vietnamese had the democratic right to national independence
and to the government they chose, whether or not we socialists agreed
with their choice. We should support that democratic right. Also, the
only way that terrible war was going to end was for the NLF and North
Vietnamese to win. The only way Vietnamese and U.S. people would stop
being killed on a large scale was through the victory of the
Stalinists, and there was no point in hoping for any other outcome
(for the immediate period, that is).
However, he made clear, “The victory of the NLF is a hard fact,
but no one’s victory changes our political opinion of him. We remain
revolutionary opponents of the NLF...and do not foster
illusions....We combat glorification of the NLF.....” (same, p. 206)
This is what it meant to Draper to give military but not political
support, namely to “remain revolutionary opponents.”
Another effort to make an anti-Stalinist approach was made by Bob
Potter in a pamphlet, The Rape of Vietnam, published in 1967 in
Britain and again in the U.S. in 1976. Potter was part of the
libertarian socialist tendency then called Solidarity in Britain,
co-thinkers of Castoriadis’ Socialisme ou Barbarie in France. They
rejected Leninism and vanguardism and approximated class struggle
anarchism. He analyzed the war as between U.S. imperialism and the
national state-capitalist bureaucracy of North Vietnam and the NLF.
Without using the language of political/military-technical support,
he came to somewhat similar conclusions. In a section titled
“Hobson’s Choice,” he wrote,
“To choose sides in Vietnam is to place oneself in
the tutelage of one or another bureaucratic system....The Vietnamese
peasant who revolts against his feudal and foreign masters has no
alternative but to support the National Liberation Front (NLF) which
is controlled by the Communist Party....At this stage,
revolutionaries IN VIETNAM probably have little alternative but to be
involved with the NLF and participate in the military struggle
against the American forces. One cannot be ‘neutral’ while aircraft
are flying over one’s head, dropping bombs.” (p. 15-16).
Then he added, “For us, IN BRITAIN, the situation is quite
different. We are not militarily involved in the struggle. There is
no necessity whatsoever for us to align ourselves with any
bureaucracy. We do a positive disservice to the cause of socialism if
we participate in the general mystification concerning the class
nature of the Russian, Chinese, or North Vietnamese regimes.
Revolutionary socialists should clearly and constantly propagate
their conception that socialism means the political, organizational,
and ideological autonomy of the working class.” (p. 16)
How does this apply to the Iraq war today?
It is not important to me whether or not we use the old Trotskyist
formula. As I have shown, different people have expressed the same
essential point in different words, different terms. For example,
another way to phrase it is to say that between the imperialist army
and the nationalist-led forces, we should be on the side of (we
defend) the nationalists, but between the nationalist-led forces and
the workers, we are on the side of the workers. There is support and
support, and formulations and formulations. The point is, it is
possible to be in solidarity with oppressed people--to defend
democrats against fascism or defend oppressed nations against
imperialism--while being in revolutionary opposition to their
leadership and their programs.
This is the problem with the way this formula is used by the ISO
and others. They use it as an excuse, a cover, not as an approach to
revolutionary politics. First they propagate the slogan, “Support the
resistance!” This is interpreted by almost everyone as meaning
uncritical political support, being on the side of the feudalists,
Sunni supremacists, theocrats, woman-haters, and union-busters. But
whenever this comes up, they respond, “Oh, we are not for ‘political
support’ of the resistance leaders.” As I have quoted D’Amato.
What should be clear from the above quotes, is that everyone who
used these concepts included the idea of positive opposition. Whether
dealing with Kerensky vs. General Kornilov, or the Spanish
republicans vs. the fascist military, or the NLF vs. the imperialist
U.S., the revolutionaries I quoted said more than just that they “did
not give political support” to Kerensky, the bourgeois republicans,
or the Stalinist NLF. They said that they were in revolutionary
opposition to these enemies of the working class! It is correct to
declare that you are not neutral between the Iraqi people and the
U.S. army. But it is also correct to say that you are not neutral
between the leaders of the resistance and women, workers, students,
The situation is Iraq today is different in a number of ways from
that of Vietnam. In Vietnam, the whole of the nation, just about, was
behind the Stalinist forces, actively or passively. This is not true
in Iraq. There is no one leadership or organization. The armed
resistance is divided in many parts and has not proposed a program.
It is concentrated among the Sunni minority. While there are Shiite
resisters, the majority is presently willing to go along with their
religious leadership, which is currently working within the framework
of the occupation. The Shiite ranks (who are the majority of the
country) apparently believe that this will lead to the withdrawal of
the U.S. forces. Meanwhile the Kurdish minority (about the size of
the Sunnis) has been pro-U.S., due to its historic oppression by the
rest of Iraq. The attitude of the Shiites and Kurds may yet change,
but that is in the future. Meanwhile there are major efforts to
organize unions throughout Iraq, against the persecution of both the
occupation and the resistance. The working class has not been
suppressed by the nationalist forces. There are also women’s
organizations. This heterogeneous situation is quite different from
the Vietnamese war.
Which leads to my conclusion that we should defend the right of
the Iraqis to resist the occupation, and say that the occupation
should be defeated, but that we should not endorse any particular
organization nor use the slogan of “Support the resistance.”
Part IV: Anarchism & National Self-Determination
Historically, the attitude of anarchists toward national liberation
movements has been ambiguous. There are aspects of the socialist
anarchist program which have been interpreted as supportive of
national self-determination and aspects which have been interpreted
as opposed to national self-determination. I believe that anarchists
have been correct to oppose nationalism as a political program, which
includes the advocacy of new national states. But anarchists should
be supportive of the MOTIVES which lead oppressed people toward
nationalism, particularly the desire to oppose imperialism and
oppression. And anarchists should support the right of nations to
self-determination, which is NOT the same as supporting nationalism.
National self-determination is the ability of the people of a
nation to decide for themselves whether they want to be independent
of another nation. This means the right to form their own national
state (or nonstate community) if they want to. It would apply also to
countries which are militarily attacked, invaded, and occupied, and
their independence overthrown. They are denied the right to determine
their own political organization. Most countries these days have
national self-determination, having their own states. The term
national liberation implies more than this, an end to economic and
political domination by imperialism--something which is not fully
possible without the overthrow of world imperialism. But if national
self-determination means the right to make a choice, then nationalism
as such is a particular choice, the choice of a national state. It is
possible to support the right of a people to make a choice without
agreeing with the immediate choice they make.
Lucien Van der Walt, of the Zabalaza Anarcho-Communist Federation
of South Africa, points out that anarchists have participated in
national anti-imperialist struggles in Cuba, Egypt, Ireland, Ukraine,
Macedonia, Korea, Algeria, and Morocco. “The anarchist movement has
paid in blood for its opposition to imperial domination.” He
summarizes, “Anarchists...may fight alongside nationalists for
limited reforms and victories against imperialism, but we fight
against the statism and capitalism of the nationalists....This
requires active participation in national liberation struggles but
political independence from the nationalists. National liberation
must be differentiated from nationalism, which is the class program
of the bourgeoisie: we are against imperialism, but also, against
a History of Anarchist Anti-Imperialism,” Summer/Fall 2004 The
Northeastern Anarchist, p. 33)
Anarchists oppose nationalism
To begin with, anarchists are internationalists. As such we have
opposed imperialism in all its forms. Imperialism includes the
exploitation of the workers and peasants of poorer nations by the
capitalists of the richer nations. Particularly, socialist anarchists
are the most consistent opponents of capitalism, which is the root of
At the same time, as internationalists, anarchists oppose the
ideology and political program of nationalism. Nationalism is not
simply the recognition that the world is divided into nations. It is
not the recognition that nations have their own cultures and
languages. Nor is it the identification with a nation, as one might
say, “I am a Frenchwoman” or “I am Iraqi.” Nationalism is a political
program. It says that the working class and poor people of a country
have more in common with their capitalist rulers than they do with
the workers and poor of other countries. Patriotic nationalism denies
that workers of one country have common interests with the workers
and oppressed of all countries against the rulers of the world.
Similarly it denies, or at least downplays, the existence of other,
nonclass, forms of oppression, such as the oppression of women,
within the nation.
Nations generally have been formed by the suppression of diverse
regions, “races,” and minority nationalities. Racial, national, and
other forms of oppression exist in virtually every country. The Kurds
have long been oppressed by the Iraqi state, for example. Throughout
the world, the First Nations (so-called primitive peoples) have been
trampled on by established nations, including formerly oppressed
“Third World” nations (the First Nations have sometimes been called
the “Fourth World”). Nationalism has justified this oppression due to
its idealization of the unified nation.
Nationalism supports the national state. In theory, there could be
an antiauthoritarian nationalism, one which advocates a nation
organized into a federation of self-governing industries and
communes. In practice, nationalism so far has served to advocate a
new national state or to support existing national states. The Iraqi
resistance is presently fighting to create a new, capitalist, Iraqi
state. So are the opportunist Iraqis who are working within the
confines of the occupation. Their only difference is over how to get
this new state. Nations have generally been formed around states.
These states exist to serve the interests of the national capitalists
against other national capitalists and against their own working
As a program, nationalism has not been very effective. While most
countries have won their own national states, most of them remain
poor and oppressed. Imperialist colonialism, which denied
self-determination to most countries, has been replaced by
imperialist neocolonialism. So-called Third World countries mostly
have their own states, but they are poverty-stricken and subordinated
to the world economy, which is dominated by corporations of the U.S.
and other imperialist powers. Political independence has been
achieved, but economic independence has not. Real national liberation
has not arrived--and cannot be achieved without international
Anarchists oppose the program of establishing new states; we aim
to smash existing states. Anarchists feel that the workers of the
world have a common interest in overthrowing international
capitalism, which is a single world system. Anarchists oppose all
forms of oppression and encourage oppressed groupings within nations
to assert themselves. As decentralists and pluralists, anarchists
oppose the suppression of “minority” cultures, races, and peoples by
unified national cultures.
As all national liberation struggles have been nationalist in
program, this anti-nationalism would seem to pit anarchism against
national self-determination. (Actually, it could be argued that
Muslim authoritarianism or jihadism is not nationalist in the usual
sense, but I will not go into that here.) However, there is another
side to anarchism, which points to possible support for national
liberation (beyond anarchism’s opposition to imperialism).
Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey, of the Nigerian Awareness League,
write in African Anarchism (1997), “Anarchists demand the liberation
of all existing colonies and support struggles for national
independence in Africa and around the world as long as they express
the will of the people in the nations concerned. However, anarchists
also insist that the usefulness of ‘self-determination’ will be very
limited as long [as] the state system and capitalism--including
Marxist state capitalism--are retained....A viable solution to the
myriad of problems posed by the national question in Africa, such as
internecine civil conflicts, is realizable only outside the context
of the state system.” (pp. 106--107)
Anarchists have supported self-determination
Anarchists are decentralists, or rather, believers in a
decentralized federalism. We advocate a socialist society of
collective communities, cooperative associations, and
directly-democratic workplaces, self-managed by face-to-face,
assemblies. We believe that such assemblies should be associated
together in voluntary federations, from the region, to the nation, to
the continent, to the world. This includes the right of the lower
levels of the federation to secede.
Bakunin declared, “Each individual, each association, commune, or
province, each region and nation, has the absolute right to determine
its own fate, to associate with others or not, to ally itself with
whomever it will, or break any alliance....The right to unite freely
and [to] separate with the same freedom is the most important of all
political rights, without which confederation will always be
disguised centralization.” (quoted in Guerin, Anarchism, 1970, p.
67). This implies national self-determination.
In his book on anarchism, Daniel Guerin commented on this
statement, “True internationalism rests on self-determination, which
implies the right of secession....Lenin and the early congresses of
the Third International adopted this concept from Bakunin, and the
Bolsheviks made it the foundation of their policy on nationalities
and of their anticolonialist strategy--until they eventually belied
it to turn to authoritarian centralization and disguised
imperialism.” (same) In my opinion it is unlikely that Lenin took his
concept of national self-determination from the anarchists (he did
not take anarchist theory seriously). But it is true that Lenin also
argued for a policy of national self-determination. Some of his
arguments were such that an anarchist might use. He argued that
working class socialists should support all struggles for democratic
rights, such as national self-determination, because these would help
to break up capitalism. He argued that workers of oppressed nations
would not trust the working class of their imperialist oppressors,
unless the latter were willing to give up their national privileges
and support the oppressed nation in its right to self-determination.
However, Lenin’s motives were different from the anarchists. Lenin
was a centralist, as he frequently pointed out. He advocated national
self-determination as a way-station on the road to complete merger of
separate nations into centralized big states, eventually into a
centralized world system. He declared, “We do not advocate preserving
small nations at all costs; other conditions being equal, we are
decidedly for centralization and are opposed to the petty-bourgeois
ideal of federal relationships.” (“On the National Pride of the Great
Russians,” Selected Works, vol. 1, 1970, p. 660) In the same way, he
advocated workers’ control of industry as a step toward state
management; he called for land to the peasants as a step toward state
farms; he fought for soviet democracy as a step toward one-party
rule. Anarchists, on the other hand, really value small national
cultures, varied societies, and different ways of living. We hope for
a free federation of peoples, not a monstrously centralized world
Anarchists oppose all forms of oppression
To most modern anarchists, anarchism is not just against
capitalism, but against all forms of domination and oppression.
Capitalism (the capital/ labor relationship) does not stand alone. It
is intertwined with other forms of oppression: gender, racial, sexual
freedom, sexual orientation, age, physical disabilities, ecological,
and so on. These systems (or subsystems) of domination interact,
overlap, and mutually support each other. Some may be more central to
the overall authoritarian society than others (I would argue that
capitalism is at the core of authoritarian society) but all
contribute to its maintenance. This view is counterposed to those who
regard one form of oppression as all that counts. A crude version of
Marxism and a mechanical syndicalism have argued that capitalist
exploitation of the workers is all that is important, and that all
other forms of oppression are just smoke and mirrors designed to
distract and divide the workers. Similar views are held by those who
argue that patriarchy or race or industrialism are the real issue and
everything else is a distraction. Instead most anarchists today, I
think, believe that all oppression must be opposed.