Third campism is a stinking corpse
James Turley argues that the left, rather than twisting words, must approach defeatism creatively
This article stems from a too brief (as they always are for subjects as gravely important as this) discussion at a meeting addressed by the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign at the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism 2008.
Though the meeting, held on Saturday May 5 as part of the CPGB-sponsored Marxism fringe, was conceived, unsurprisingly, as an attack on the SWP’s tailist approach to anti-imperialism – the ideological phenomenon that prompted Hopi’s founders into action in the first place – regrettably, the SWP declined all invitations to send any speakers (though one young comrade attended in a personal capacity). As it happened, then, the discussion took a different tack than a simple assault on the SWP.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Tom Unterrainer was notable for his non-combativity – but then, that organisation seems to have quietly given up making any serious defence of its scab line on imperialism, maintaining it bureaucratically rather than politically. Controversy, as it happened, erupted primarily among the CPGB members present.
Nick Rogers posed the question of the role of communists in Iran. It is obvious enough, after all, that those of us in Britain or other imperialist centres fight for the defeat of our own side (the dissenting voices to this consist entirely of rightwing social democrats and the AWL – comrade Unterrainer did not take the bait). It is difficult to imagine any way of being opposed to a war without attempting concretely to bring it to a close. Outside the combat zones, as metropolitan countries always are in imperialist wars, only defeatism is up to the job.
On the other hand, the picture is complicated when we consider the tasks of those in Iran. Do our comrades there also fight for the defeat of their own side? Comrade Nick’s answer appeared to be ‘yes’, although he also seemed ambivalent. The main rationale for this dual defeatism he offered was simply that “both sides are capitalist” and that the working class cannot side with one or the other. He questioned whether there was a contradiction between this and Hopi’s insistence, along with the CPGB, that imperialism is the main enemy.
I argued against this, as did Yassamine Mather of Workers Left Unity Iran (who reiterated that Hopi was not a “third camp” organisation). My main line of argumentation was that the Iranian state could not be seriously described as an anti-imperialist force. If the working class in Iran attempted to arm itself to fight off attacks from the US or its allies, Tehran would be threatened, and would clamp down (comrade Mather had already noted that the regime did exactly this when something similar took place in factories around the Iraqi border as war between the two countries loomed).
The necessity of struggle – and, likely, armed struggle at that – against the theocracy was posed by the necessity of inflicting a defeat on imperialism. Use of the ‘dual defeatism’ formula, as purified in the crucible of World War I and generally condensed into the slogan, ‘The main enemy is at home’, was therefore incorrect: the fact that imperialism is the greater enemy is the very reason why struggle against the Iranian state is important. (Thus, my position – in the rather limited terms of the Trotskyist movement – is strictly speaking ‘defencist': ie, in a world empty of all forces except the Iranian and US state machines, or – what amounts to the same thing – in that conflict abstracted from the conjuncture of an actual war, I support the victory of the Iranians; the Trotskyist error is that world simply is not like that.)
Others intervened in the debate – Stan Keable seemed closer to Nick’s position, and Ben Lewis to mine. Both, however, argued for defeatism in Iran.
It should be noted that, on a practical level, there are not many differences of substance. Both Nick and I recognise that the Iranian state is a reactionary force that must be destroyed, that war will not interrupt, but rather accelerate, the repression of workers and progressive movements, and therefore that war (contra orthodox Trotskyism) poses the task of overthrowing the state rather than defending it. I am not about to endorse the Spartacist League’s ‘defencist’ demand that “Iran needs nuclear weapons to defend itself!”, nor a collapse into the AWL’s social-imperialism.
However, from a scratch there can develop gangrene. Nick is correct to identify an ambiguity between the two statements, ‘Imperialism is the main enemy’ and ‘The main enemy is at home’, and an outright contradiction for communists outside the imperialist countries. It is an ambiguity which has manifested itself frequently in the political statements of the CPGB over the last 10 years, and will lead it into hot water eventually. Theoretical clarification is not an optional extra to revolutionary politics, but – as Lenin pointed out – its precondition.
The history of a question
To address the question seriously, we must consider its history. Revolutionary defeatism is Lenin’s response to the political collapse of the Second International at the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. As is well known, almost all socialist parliamentary fractions across Europe voted in favour of war credits, and thus directly contributed to feeding millions of workers into the mincing machine of trench warfare.
Lenin counterposed to this social-chauvinist treachery, encapsulated everywhere in the slogan, ‘Defence of the fatherland’, a theoretical analysis and a novel policy. The theoretical point was, very briefly, that the various instances of Marx and Engels ‘favouring’ one side over the other in a war between the great powers (for example, the defeat of tsarist Russia in a war with Germany) were tied to the era of the progressive bourgeoisie, and thus obsolete in the era of capitalist decay and inter-imperialist war.
The resultant policy is that socialists should actively work for the defeat of their ‘own’ side in the war: “During a reactionary war,” Lenin writes in a polemic against Trotsky, “a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government … A ‘revolutionary struggle against the war’ is merely an empty and meaningless exclamation … unless it means revolutionary action against one’s own government even in wartime …Wartime revolutionary action against one’s own government indubitably means not only desiring its defeat, but really facilitating such a defeat.”1
What Lenin does not advocate is the generalisation of revolutionary defeatism to all sides of all wars, and in fact the other major emphasis of Lenin’s work in the period is the right of nations to self-determination. He argues variously against Bukharin and Pyatakov that in wars of national liberation socialists take the side of the oppressed nation: “For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on Russia, and so forth, those would be ‘just’, ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who attacked first; and every socialist would sympathise with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slave-owning, predatory ‘great’ powers.”2 In such a war, the metropolitan proletariat is to be defeatist, but its colonial comrades are to ‘defend the fatherland’.
The point of this demonstration is not to argue that Lenin’s policy regarding colonial wars was correct – I believe that the subsequent course of history has shown many of his formulations, including key aspects of his theory of imperialism, to be mistaken – but to show that in its original version defeatism is at all times a tactic, whose use depends on the specific conjuncture.
The standard interpretation of defeatism on the Trotskyist left is the contrast between military and political support (the roots of this formula are difficult to nail down, but they have only become common currency in post-war Trotskyism). Political support for a movement or state involves actively seeking alliances with it – entering a popular front government, for example.
Military support implies as close cooperation as tactically possible with a movement or state on common goals, against common enemies – for instance, mobilising a workers’ militia to help a semi-colonial state drive out an invading imperialist force. Trotskyists, in situations such as the present one in Iran, call for the military defence of the bourgeois/reactionary forces insofar as they oppose imperialism.
Dan Read, in last week’s letters page, defends this formula from common CPGB criticisms of it (July 10). The most prevalent of these is simply that, since even the larger Trotskyist groups are unable to send arms to Iran to repel the Americans, military support in effect is limited to yet another variety of political support, since it is reduced to simply upholding a particular political position.
Dan is right to point out that this is not really a critique so much as a rather forced bit of semantic pedantry. Military support is perfectly well understood by its adherents as a kind of political position, to be distinguished from a more full-blooded variety that one might as well call political support (for example, by Hal Draper, quoted at length by comrade Read3).
The real question, left quite untouched by such sophistry, is whether the theoretical distinction – which is there – points to a real distinction, and the extent to which military and political support really do create radically different outcomes when concretised into tactics in particular conjunctures; whether the phrases actually matter.
The most elaborate critique of defeatism came from a younger Draper, in his The myth of Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism.4 Draper argued that Lenin’s position was inconsistent but, more importantly, incoherent – there is no way to wish for the defeat of one side in a war without wishing for the victory of the other; thus defeatist socialists ended up doing the dirty work of foreign imperialist governments.
Draper’s intervention (published in 1953) came in the context of developing arguments over the correct approach of Trotskyists to the Soviet Union. Trotsky argued until his death that the Fourth International should support the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ in any war, as it embodied – for all its distortions and counterrevolutionary leadership – a world-historic gain for the working class. Draper belonged to the tendency headed by Max Shachtman, which split off from the main American Trotskyist party over the issue in the wake of the Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. He became the most consistent advocate of what is now known as ‘third-camp’ Trotskyism.
The views expressed at the Hopi meeting are obviously distinct from Draper’s, insofar as Draper rejects defeatism altogether (or did at that time, under Shachtman’s influence). But both are guilty of a more general error – a formalism which does not take into account the international, indeed global, dynamics of military conflict and the relations and structures of power into which such conflicts are inserted.
Capitalism is an international mode of production; from its earliest stirrings it produces for a world market. The tendencies towards massive centralisation and the increased role of finance capital seen in the late 19th century and erroneously identified by Lenin as a qualitatively new, ‘imperialist’ stage merely make obvious what has been true all along.
A necessary side effect of this international quality is that endless large and important transactions are unable to rely on the normal means of contract and right enforcement – the local state and its repressive apparatus. Thus there is a tendency for states to militarise and use armed force to carve out a space for capitalist production, which in turn leads to inequalities in industrial technique and capacity taking on a military character as well.
The final and necessary result is a system of states whose relative power differs both quantitatively (the number of soldiers, ships, tanks, etc available to a state) and qualitatively (the specific role a state may play in reproducing the particular balance of forces). The most important role is that of world hegemon, the most powerful imperialist state (or bloc of states) and the ultimate guarantor of the smooth functioning of the world economy and state system. This role is fundamentally reliant on the ability to deploy overwhelming military force against ‘unruly’ states.
Additionally, we have already seen that even states in the former colonies – such as Iran – are unlikely at best to mount a serious and consistent opposition to imperialist actions. Iran supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and continues to cultivate close links with the puppet regimes of both. Ultimately, whether its roots lie in life-and-death anti-colonial warfare or the political establishments of the imperialist heartlands, the immediate priority of a bourgeois government is integration as successful as possible into the world economy. This gives it a material stake in its smooth functioning and thus in the ability of the world hegemon to undertake ‘police actions’, enforce trade policies and so on – a material stake in imperialism.
The quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan are, as Mike Macnair has argued, symptoms of the decline of US hegemony. There is also, however, a sense in which they enact it. The naked fact that the US is finding it almost impossible to impose its will on Iraq, despite the kaleidoscopic fragmentation of its opposition, undermines its ability to launch military operations.
In a war between the US (or another imperialist country) and a non-imperialist country, or a counter-insurgency against a rebel movement, socialists are for the defeat of the US. If pigs flew, and the Iranian theocracy was able and willing to inflict a defeat on the US, then socialists would consider that defeat progressive. If the bowels of the earth opened up, and Satan himself appeared and repelled the American forces, it would still be a victory. We must be absolutely clear that in an imperialist war, the only side whose defeat we positively desire, over and above the general goal of worldwide overthrow of capitalism, is the imperialist side. Anti-imperialism must be focused on the ‘business end’ of imperialism – the ability of powerful states to guarantee their power through military operations.
It is from this that our opposition to the cowardly, craven reactionary regimes typified by Iran flows. It is not because they engage in ‘reactionary wars’ that communists in Iran must demand the heads of the mullahs, but because their total reliance on integration into the system of states and the world market renders them utterly disarmed before the imperialist threat. Their fear of the working class – and terror of its self-organisation – compounds matters.
This, if it is not obvious, is the point of failure of military/political support. When dealing with bourgeois states, it is almost inevitable – thanks to the organic reliance of any bourgeois state on the imperialist state system – that a successful proletarian movement must be well prepared for military operations against ‘its’ state, no matter how parlous its relationship with the imperialist metropoles.
Draper ties himself in knots by half-acknowledging this – in most of his historical examples, “it was in fact impossible for revolutionary forces to establish a relationship of peaceful coexistence and collaboration with the official leaders of the national struggle, and in some cases the latter would give higher priority to the task of physical extermination of a revolutionary alternative to their own leadership than to fighting the common foe … Depending on the politics of the situation, ‘military support’ may remain mainly a matter of a political position if there is no way to implement it without handing the revolutionary left over to the hangmen.”5
‘Military defence’ is reduced, not by the meagre capacity of the revolutionary left to organise material support, but by the real dynamics of international relations, to an empty phrase and a basically useless slogan.
Third campism – either in its ‘hard’ anti-defeatist or ‘soft’ dual-defeatist variants – is no alternative. We are not looking for ways to remain ‘pure’, and simply avoid giving support to reactionary forces, but to damage the system as a whole. Generalised defeatism in World War I was proposed as the shortest distance to civil war across Europe and then revolution; the Comintern conceived the ‘anti-imperialist united front’ along similar lines, as a way to create proletarian hegemony where the working class remained a minority (though it was, ultimately, a failure).
‘Dual defeatism’ in (semi-)colonial wars, however, misses out the international dimension. By elevating the slogan into a principle, it repeats the error of the ‘imperialist economists’, who used the Bolshevik attacks on ‘defence of the fatherland’ in the inter-imperialist war to shore up their denial of the right of nations to self-determination. The actual principle involved is the maximum independent fighting strength of the working class. The dominant imperialist states are the greater threat by far to the accomplishment of that principle, in firepower and in staying power, than a tin-pot reactionary regime.
In equivocating on this, the comrades make a theoretical concession to the congenitally economist ‘third camp’ – both substitute an arid formalism and moralistic denunciation in place of real strategic and tactical analysis of the tasks of the working class in imperialised social formations. This perfectly suited Shachtman’s strategy of total immersion in the ultra-chauvinist American labour bureaucracy. Internationalists, however, must aim higher.
1. ‘The defeat of one’s own government in the imperialist war': marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/jul/26.htm
2. Socialism and war chapter 1: marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/s+w/ch01.htm
3. ABC of national liberation movements: marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/draper/1969/abc/abc.htm
5. ABC, op cit.
First published in the Weekly Worker 730